I remember in my early days of part-time journalism, conducting interviews, not with tech entrepreneurs at that time but mostly small indie bands, using a little Dictaphone complete with miniature cassettes. There were no smart apps like Otter to push the recording through afterwards to generate a transcript either, so my work involved listening back to capture the best quotes emerging from the not always stunningly articulate subject. It sometimes took quite a bit of fast-forwarding and rewinding.
I enjoyed listening to those tapes, and wonder what happened to some special recordings, but one thing I know I always hated: hearing my own voice. I sounded weird, completely different to how I sounded in my own head when I spoke. I thought I knew my own voice really well, I’d been listening to it all my life, but this flat tinny sound coming from the little mono speaker was completely different.
I felt much the same about photos of me at the time, I recall. I was always much more comfortable behind the camera, because what I saw on the print didn’t resemble what I thought I knew, and that made me deeply uncomfortable
Fast-forward (retro callback!) to the 2020s, and I think we all know what we look like.
Now well into my second decade of social media, I am far less fresh-faced and carefully made-up than I was back in my muso days, but the difference is I am now relaxed and confident about posing for selfies. I am under no illusions about what my face actually looks like, and provided I can curate the frame which makes me look least deranged out a small burst, I don’t mind snapping and sharing a quick photo to share any situation. I don’t even mind being tagged by friends in group images. I have really totally got over the whole “Ooh I hate how I look in photos!” mindset, because I’m completely used to it now.
I’m used to my voice in recordings too after many years of podcasting. I know it’s different to how it sounds in my head when I speak, and I don’t necessarily love listening to myself either, but it’s not nearly as odd as it used to be – because I have to listen to it all the time when I’m writing up show-notes and interviews.
I know I’m not alone in this journey towards accepting what others see and hear of me, because it’s a journey mediated by technology which gives us that perspective of other people – when previously we only had our internal one.
The final frontier for many though is video, because most of us have had much less occasion – at least until very recently – to watch ourselves endlessly in real-time moving pictures on a screen.
This all changed in the spring of 2020 when a world of knowledge workers were thrust overnight into online working, and for many, their first experience of endless back-to-back video meetings. Meetings in which they were expected to have the camera on by default, and often wound up staring and concentrating for hours – not necessarily on the content of the meeting, but on that odd thing they were doing with their eyebrows or how strange their chin looked or were their roots showing…? Arghh! What did my manager just ask..?
Now, the subject of how many video meetings we should actually be happening, and whether this is an effective way to collaborate as a remote team, is a subject for another blog. For now I will just say that the answer is a lot of people had far, far too many meetings, and their productivity and peace of mind declined dramatically as a result.
But the phenomenon of “zoom fatigue” has some basis in reality beyond that of simply taking up too much time in our working day talking about work instead of doing it. We are simply not accustomed to having conversations with others as well sat in front of a large mirror. Certainly not conversations with clients and colleagues and our managers – it’s really unnatural and strange.
In fact, sitting in front of a mirror may have felt more natural, because unless you adapt the settings, a lot of video conferencing platforms don’t automatically mirror your view anyway – instead they show you what you actually look like, which is suddenly different from what you’re used to seeing reflected. (This is one reason many people used to find they disliked photos of themselves and couldn’t quite relate to them – the photos showed what they really look like to other people, as opposed to the reversed image that they were far more familiar with seeing themselves).
It’s curious, because as a species we are designed to like looking at faces, even small babies show preferences of gazing upon anything shaped like a human face. They’ll take any face going if their primary caregivers aren’t around. We see faces in random assembling of objects where none exist thanks to pareidolia, (when people see angels in a taco or elephants in clouds), and there is even research which suggests we prefer looking at our own faces above any other – we get an additional jolt of dopamine when we recognise ourselves. I think the problem lies in that self recognition in the first place, when we are more used to our mirror image than the reality.
We have a handy video on how to optimise your settings within Zoom so you look and hopefully feel most like yourself, so do grab your copy of that. But did you know you don’t have to look at yourself at all if you don’t want to?
Once your video call is established you can keep your camera running, but turn off your own view of it. So everybody else can still see you on video, but you don’t have to look at yourself.
Some people find this an absolute godsend, and if you are genuinely creeped out by watching yourself on camera then why not give it a try? Anything which reduces your stress and fatigue in one meeting too many, is definitely fair game to experiment with.
Honestly though, longer term, I would advise you continue to work on getting over it and simply becoming accustomed to seeing your nodding smiling face alongside everybody else’s. You know that you will get over it just as you did with the selfies, it’s simply a matter of time, and disabling your camera feed only delays that adaptation.
Also, if you do have any concerns about how you look, you simply won’t see them if you can’t see what everybody else sees – so your anxiety may even increase. And if anything changes in what you are broadcasting – you somehow move your head out of shot or your lighting goes weird for example – you won’t know about it, but everybody else will. If anything else is going on in your immediate environment the same applies, like a memorable meeting I once had with a client when two of his dogs started humping in the room behind him – luckily his video was on, and he noticed what was going on a split second after I did, I’m sure my face would’ve drawn attention to something occurring anyway, but this is just something to bear in mind before you follow the instructions in the support article above and turn off your view of yourself. You might be at an informational disadvantage, if others can see things that you can’t.
If you’re not using Zoom you will find similar functionality in other platforms if you feel you need it, however, and if you don’t have the technical solution to hand you could even resort to a low tech physical one – sticking a post-it note or something on the screen, over your own video box.
But never forget, you don’t really look weird – everyone knows and loves you just as you are, and between us, we’re all getting better at getting used to ourselves.
If this truly helps you concentrate on the other speakers and what they are bringing to the meeting then why not check it out? You can always gradually increase your exposure and comfort levels to your own video feed over time, and optimising your concentration engagement and peace of mind is more important than adapting rapidly.