Zooming Ever Lower

I’ve fallen in love with Zoom and other electronic meetings. Most people I know use this novel medium for group gatherings now. I’ve come to admire our collective frontier gumption. As we’ve felt our way toward this new communal experience, we’ve become explorers. 

With more people using digital get-togethers, I’ve become delighted to see us all dip to lower meeting standards. As we’ve increased the human quirks rarely seen in office meetings, we’ve balanced the sterile technology that’s been aiding us during the pandemic. As far as I can tell, we’ve been mostly unaware of creating new office behaviors. 

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a woman, Eileen W. as her label read, fall asleep. A group of thirty listened to an art history lecture. Twenty-nine of us watched her mouth hang open as she slumbered. At least, muted, we didn’t hear her snore. Art history lectures have always provided cures for insomnia. I spent a career as an art history professor, so I did my part to rid the world of sleep deprivation. When I taught in real rooms, someone next to the sleeper jabbed him (usually a man). But, a private typed chat message to Eileen W. wouldn’t wake her. If I unmuted and shouted her name, I would interrupt the venerable lecturer. In a physical meeting, I wouldn’t openly gawk at the sleeper, but online, I stared to my heart’s content. I watched her, then I gazed at the sublime Chinese Shang Dynasty bronzes from 5000BC, then I observed Eileen again, back and forth like a tennis match. 

The same week, I attended a digital group of two hundred and fifty, a world-wide Al Anon meeting, a twelve step program for the friends and relatives of alcoholics. The hosting group started the meeting in Seattle, but I joined from Hawaii, as did folks from India, Japan, Canada and Germany, to name a few places. This group had met weekly for over six months, not a big deal anymore to them, but its international scope still astounded me. But I hadn’t expected  bigger excitement. All at once, an American woman named Joan S. picked up a corn cob and proceeded to chomp on it throughout the meeting. Thrilled, I couldn’t believe my eyes. A large ear of corn spread across her face like a huge, yellow grin which probably matched my big smile.  Would she eat it typewriter style, left to right and back again? Yes, she did, just like I would. Did she know two hundred and forty nine people from around the world watched a close-up of her corn performance? I doubted it. She showed no consciousness of being on view.

Did Zoom lull us into thinking no one could see us? I heard from a friend of a friend about a woman who forgot people could see her and used the bathroom during an online meeting. Luckily, she met with a small group of friends who kindly reminded her, “Jane, you do know that we can see you going to the bathroom, right?” Apparently, Jane had forgotten people could see her. She used her smartphone and, I suppose, habitually carried it into the bathroom. 

I’ve transposed the same habits I used in real meetings into the computerized format. I always sat still, looked up at the speaker, down at my notes, crossed my legs, uncrossed my legs and sipped tea once in a while. In every electronic meeting, I’m astounded to see one person who constantly moved, so much so, it looked like a dance. She must’ve waved a small device like a smart phone because her body seemed to flail sideways, then upside down, then right-side-up again, with arms and legs in non-stop motion. I could imagine her doing this for a minute or two while getting her phone properly set up. But after an hour, it seemed pathological. The human eye gravitated toward motion and I couldn’t help watch the agitated form until I got seasick. 

In almost every online meeting, at least one person kept their face dark, in shadow, sometimes all features obscured, a black hole. In a small Skype group I attended each week, a friend always had a blank visage. I found it odd to speak to a dark space on top of shoulders. I didn’t want to call her Darth Vader, but I did, just once. I subtly asked if she could put more light on her beautiful face. I would rather talk to her than to Darth Vader. She acquiesced, but the next week, she’d gone back to the dark side again. I let her be.

In warm Hawaii, people routinely wore little clothing. But it still shocked me when an online meeting participant’s male family member walked through the Zoom background shirtless, especially a son or grandson, young and hunky. My girlfriend’s teen-aged daughter routinely wore short shorts and a sports bra as she wandered around behind her Mom on Google Meet. While considered perfectly appropriate wear for a teen-age girl in Hawaii, somehow it shocked me every time she suddenly flashed onscreen. My eyes riveted on the bare skin and I instantly forgot the topic at hand.

A distant friend, Derrick, used his bed as his Zoom background. Sometimes his bed remained tousled from the night, sometimes not. I never considered myself a fussy soul, but I felt unable to reveal the personal terrain of my bed to the world. After a month or two of meetings, I asked if this was, indeed, his real bed. Somehow, if it’d been a guest bed, I would’ve felt better about it. He seemed proud and said, “Yeah. And I have a big screen TV so I can lie here and watch Netflix.” At that moment, I realized, unconsciously, I’d put him on a pedestal for all his excellent work with charities. Staring at his bed each week and imagining him sprawled while watching movies humanized him. I took him off the pedestal, perhaps a good thing.

It amazed me to see how many people on Zoom revealed half their face, usually the top section, the forehead, eyebrows, and half-closed eyes – not the most flattering facial features. People seemed to lower their eyes to type or stare at their screens located below their waist, perhaps laptops in their laps, making their chin, mouth and sometimes their nose disappear. Today, for the first time, Jason C. showed half his face, vertically. I saw one eye, half a nose and half a mouth for the whole meeting. I wanted to ask Jason if he did this on purpose, displaying his best side. But at this business meeting, I demurred, trying to keep a professional demeanor.

People who used their smartphones or tablets seemed to favor the giant hand gesture. In the middle of a meeting, all at once, a huge organic shape swooped in, as if attempting to grab a viewer at close range. Once I got over the shock of a wrinkled behemoth seemingly launched towards me, I realized the person had their device situated such that it showed their hand moving forward to change a setting. I’d think the person would notice how ugly and disturbing this move appeared.

A new phenomenon showed up yesterday, a blinding sunspot. Apparently the sun reflected into a mirror behind Phyllis and flared directly into my eyes. When Phyllis finally settled into position, her head blocked out the supernova. Luckily, I could see again.

I haven’t mentioned people’s animals and children galumphing through our meetings. Those cute and sometimes loud beings have become commonplace in digital work spaces. As time has gone on, more folks have learned about the mute button and, in most online gatherings, everyone used it or the host muted everyone automatically. But recently, at a meeting of about forty people, the two doctors leading us apparently didn’t know about universal muting and they called on loud individuals by name to mute themselves. Suddenly, I heard, “Curtis, mute yourself. Janel, press your mute button.” Their air of command exerted a Nazi-like control over the group, an odd reversion to stringent outdated business practices. I must’ve gotten used to a more relaxed digital meeting style. 

In office assemblies of old, we didn’t see someone’s bed. No one munched on an ear of corn. Half-naked relatives didn’t prance around the focused group. We saw our cohorts’ full faces, all exposed to the same lighting. Animals and children were strictly verboten.

Because individuals set up their electronic meetings at home, each participant almost couldn’t help but project a sense of cozy privacy while trying to maintain business-like formality. This contrast created a jolly anomaly. I adored this creative fusion of private and corporate, when the messy human bits intruded into pristine, elevated business customs. The human foibles intrigued and tickled me. In almost every cyber-meeting, with admiration and a laugh, I found new joy in my fellow meeting mates.  If this trend remained strong, it seemed likely online meetings could evolve to make business culture more humane, children and animals welcome.

Leave a Comment