Share

Why turning off your camera is the key to online empathy

Worn out by video calls? HTB's pastoral chaplain Rev Will Van Der Hart explains the science behind the problem

You have taken 157 Zoom calls since the Coronavirus lockdown started and you're beginning to dread the next ‘interactive online gathering’.

Sound familiar? Yesterday I crawled through four hours of consecutive Zoom calls. Afterwards I felt like I had been run over by a bus.

I couldn’t quite pinpoint what I found most frustrating. There are the obvious issues: the fact that I have to stare at my own nose throughout the call and I find myself wondering whether the platform might have an application to make it look just a little smaller. Then there is there is the colleague who looks like they are in a Scandinavian home-furnishing showroom, filled with immaculate cream rugs and scented candles. Frankly, I would rather not be reminded of how badly we are faring in lockdown domesticity: I prefer to assume everyone else’s house also looks like a small tornado has passed through it.

Yet, it’s not really the comparisons or the vanity that are getting me down. It is something far more subtle. There's something about the medium of interactive screen calls which interrupts the flow of empathy between us: People who are usually sensitive and intuitive suddenly seem abrasive and blunt. All of the subtleties of tone and pitch seem to have been edited out of our communications.

I read a fascinating study published by Yale psychologist Michael W. Kraus entitled, 'Voice-Only Communication Enhanced Empathetic Accuracy.' (I know. It sounds amazing!) According to Kraus, when we have less information we tend to do better in accurately determining what a person is feeling. He concludes, “Overall, the findings align with a broader literature which finds that vocal cues are more critical to accurate emotion recognition than are facial cues of emotion.” It was a relief to find some science to back up my discomfort. I thought I might have just been me.

We tend to use our eyes as our sensory default and largely overestimate the importance of what we see in determining emotions. So, given the option for more vision, we typically take it. Who would opt for black and white when you could have glorious HD? However, seeing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and unconsciously I think we know that. Take hugging for example (since we are all missing it!). When someone gives you a big hug, you tend to close your eyes as the sensory experience is more powerful without the distraction of sight. It’s not just touch either; try watching someone smelling a rose or a good glass of red wine.

If we want to really connect deeply it appears that having less information at our disposal is actually helpful. Kraus states, “These findings suggest paradoxically that understanding others’ mental states and emotions relies less on the amount of information provided, and more on the extent that people attend to the information being vocalized in interactions with others.” I suddenly realise why staring at 23 different people’s faces in quick succession (including my own) is leaving me so exhausted: It’s information overload and rather than going deep, I’m getting overwhelmed.

So I did an emotional experiment of my own. I did a marriage counselling session while lying on my back on a really comfy sofa. No guilt whatsoever. I closed my eyes and listened deeply. It was a heavy conversation but it was good. Most remarkable to me was the fact that once the hour long call was over, I felt energised not exhausted. Voices really do communicate empathy and connection better than visuals and voices together. This is strengthened by that fact that if your body is relaxed and you are undistracted or self-conscious, you will be able to listen more effectively and foster a deeper and more supportive connection with the person you are listening to.

So what to do? I am not saying that we should forgo video calls – really, I’m not. They are a valuable and necessary means to us continuing to work and connect together during this difficult time. The key question we need to ask is: What is the purpose of this call? If it is for the transmission of factual information between large groups of people you are in the right place. If however, you want a deeper, more meaningful and relational conversation pick up the phone and make an audio only call.

About this blog

Opinions on the latest trends, topics, news and culture from a Christian perspective.

Weekly Newsletter
You may also like...

Pentecostal President of Churches Together in England Agu Irukwu... More

Greg Laurie, the pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, has... More

Instagram pumps out millions of images that could inspire us... More