I’ve rediscovered the telephone.
I resisted it at first. Like many of us, I’ve made fewer phone calls over the past few years. Most of my close friends text, email, or see each other in person instead.
So when lockdown happened, my initial instinct was to use video chats to replace in-person interactions. I thought it would be better than phone calls since I’d be able to see face expressions and other nonverbal clues.
Turns out, I was wrong.
I hate video chats. Too often, the sound and video are out of sync, so I feel like I’m watching a badly dubbed movie. Too often, the video freezes and the audio cuts out.
But more importantly, video chats distract me. I know I should look into the camera and not into my friend’s eyes. But that makes me feel like I am putting on a performance, and I have to continually remind myself to do it. It distracts me and being distracted makes it harder to listen.
But the worst distraction by far is my own image on the screen. My eyes are continually drawn to it. I try to resist but I fail several times on each video call. Having failed, I then not try to obsess about how I look. But I fail at that too and I start considering the unflattering lighting in my room, better camera angles, and more flattering filters. And I dream of driving to a nearby state for a much-needed haircut.
And then with a jolt, I realize that my attention has drifted and I force it back to what my friend is saying.
Some apps anticipate the problem of self-absorption and allow me to minimize my image so that I can’t see it. But that doesn’t work either because I fidget. After a few minutes, my friends report that I have slid out of view so that they only can see the top of my head. I squirm back into view, only to disappear again a few minutes later. I give up and pull my own image back up— but then it distracts me again and I miss the next thing my friends are saying.
With all those distractions, I’m not listening very well and I’m certainly not picking up on the nonverbal clues I was seeking. This sort of partial attention is perhaps good enough for light conversations, but it makes important and deep conversations impossible. And as far as I’m concerned, they are the only conversations that really and truly are worth having.
And I don’t think distracted listening is good enough even for light conversations. Fighting to pay attention makes me tired. And despite my fighting, I know I’m not listening as well as I normally do. I worry that my friends will start feeling hurt and disrespected. And since my friends are just as distracted as I am, I don’t feel heard myself. I started noticing that I was feeling tired and drained at the end of my video conversations.
During an unusually frustrating video chat with a girlfriend, I got fed up and said “you know what? Hang up. I’ll just call you. On the phone.”
No video. No apps. Just the phone.
Suddenly, all those distractions were gone. I could hear her voice clearly. And I could hear the emotion in her voice. And freed from the need of looking at the screen, I could focus on what she was saying. We had a long deep talk about things that mattered to us, and I hung up feeling better than I had in weeks. And a few minutes later, she texted me and said, “you know, that conversation made me feel like we actually got together in person and talked. Thank you!” We’ve stuck to phone conversations ever since.
The technology will improve so the bad syncing and glitches will become rarer. And one day soon, I’ll get a haircut and then I’ll think less about my hair. Perhaps in the future, I’ll even become so spiritually advanced that seeing myself is less distracting. But I hope that I’ll never get used to looking at a camera instead of into a friend’s eyes.