This week there’s been: after work wines with the entire Cosmopolitan team, a pub quiz with my mother-in-law, a morning workout class led by my fittest friend, my bi-monthly writing club, birthday cocktails (with too many shots) and because it was sunny… a BBQ.
Before you call the police on me, I haven’t been ignoring social distancing rules. Every single one of these gatherings has taken place over video call. And I’m bloody exhausted. I had to duck out of the cocktails at 9pm to get to bed. My friends went on until 1am. I spent the quiz failing to get any answers (standard behaviour) and struggling to keep my eyes open (not-so-standard). This isn’t like me. I’m a social person. When I’m out with friends I can stay up chatting for hours; I don’t believe in the concept of ‘one drink’ and I don’t relish in my own company at all. Sad as it may sound, I find myself… quite boring.
"These exchanges were supposed to make me feel good… but I found them to be the total opposite"
So I was, like so many of us, worried about how I’d cope during lockdown. But then I came up with a genius solution: I’d simply replace all my usual interactions with their video counterparts. Problem solved, I thought. But, about a week in, I found myself bursting into tears after a video chat. These exchanges were supposed to make me feel good… but I found them to be the total opposite. I felt drained. Yet, all around me, across social media I was seeing people having a blast on video calls – donning silly hats, throwing discos in their living rooms… It made me feel like I was doing something wrong.
I asked around, reaching out to friends and on Twitter to if anyone felt the same way, and I was flooded with responses. People called them “exhausting”, “awkward”, “exposing” and “super intense.” They weren’t talking about work calls, but instead those with the people they loved most in the world.
So what’s going on? As lockdown continues is there anything we can do to ensure we see our friends and family, without knackering ourselves out in the process?
“People are learning to navigate the new normal of their social lives,” says Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook. “Lots of my clients have found this very hard – from the etiquette of how to behave, to overcommitting.”
It turns out that trying to totally replicate my old life via video was my first mistake. An understandable mistake, but a mistake all the same. “Humans don’t like change,” explains Hilda. “So it’s easy to think I will just do exactly what I did before, the same yoga class, the same weekly drinks, but over video. But being behind a screen is not the same – we have to work so much harder. They need to be treated differently.”
This is partly down to eye strain: if we work in office-based jobs it’s likely we’re staring at screens much more than we are used to, with videos replacing meetings and interactions with colleagues. But our brains are working harder as well, because even though we are technically “seeing” our loved ones on video we aren’t getting the full picture. And that’s not only with those who manage to angle their camera so we can just see their forehead. With most video calls we can only see our friends and family’s faces, we can’t see their body language - how they’re fiddling with their wine glass but still insisting they’re fine, or tapping their foot in agitation. “Our subconscious is trying to make sense of how people are feeling,” Hilda says. “The barrier of the screen causes a disconnect… and that’s tiring.”
Then there’s the eternally awkward moments on group calls when you all end up speaking over one another, or there’s an awkward silence… that you all fill in at once. “Oh no, you go…” seems to have become a mainstay of my vocabulary over the past few weeks. “You’ll never be at a party and all of you just sit in a circle talking,” explains Hilda. “People have different needs at different times.”
So what can be done? It may be tempting just to say “nope” to all video calls but for many – especially those who live on their own – they’re a lovely thing to receive. No one wants to cut off all social contact either. Then there’s the guilt, we want to make our friends happy, especially in tough times, and don’t know how to say no. It’s a lot harder to politely turn someone down now that “I just need a night in” is no longer an excuse. It can feel like saying “I just don’t want to talk to you.”
"Video calls are not the same. You have to work so much harder"
“We all still need time for ourselves,” says Hilda. The key, she thinks, is figuring out our own personal limit as we navigate this new world. From working out how long you can stay on calls (for me, usually an hour) to knowing how many you can handle during the week. It’s also important to recognise there are other options – you could do an old-fashioned voice call, which can be done while going for your daily walk or – if you have handsfree – while doing chores round the house.
I’ve gotten into sending plenty of voice notes and videos to my friends, I’ve found it helps me feel connected to them but I can listen and record them according to how I am feeling. I’ve also found I prefer either one-on-one video calls or, in groups, adjusting the settings so I can’t see my own face (the digital equivalent of getting the seat in the bar opposite a mirror.)
“It’s also important to ask yourself why you’re doing something,” notes Hilda. “If you’re in a committed weekly catch up, you don’t have to carry it on if it leaves you drained. Offer to chat to friends individually, explaining how it makes you feel. Don’t just leave without any explanation, if they’re good friends they will understand.” And you never know, they might just say that they've been finding all the group calls totally knackering too...
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