It’s been over six months of semi-lockdown, and you’ve probably already experienced almost everything during the virtual meetings: cats, kids, a no-pants guy, the “mute yourself” issue… I’ve experienced it, too. Since our digital transfer happened so unexpectedly, it’s natural that people were puzzled and frustrated. No one had a long-term plan of how to go through all the virtual meetings. We were all sure that it’s going to go back to normal soon, and therefore no attempts were made to clear up the dos and don’ts of the digital presence. Stakeholders were busy reshaping the budget; employees – figuring out virtual education and research. As a result, spring in academia was great in content but mostly a mess organization-wise.
Most people split into two camps: some were highly excited and enthusiastic to participate in all online activities, others preferred to stay offline and to wait out the digital world. I clearly belong to the first group. I feel like I attended every possible webinar and – let’s admit it – I attended several events simultaneously, too. Wish I had a time flywheel!
Now that spring and summer are over it’s high time we try to reflect on the rules of common courtesy at online meetings. I summed them up from conversations with my fellow researchers and teachers, so if you’re in academia, you could probably relate to it. However, none of the points below are set in stone; feel free to disagree and start a discussion.
To begin with, there are a couple of points that can probably make everyone’s life easier, and everyone’s Zoom experience more pleasant.
(1) It’s always nice if you put on clothes. Actually, please please please put them on. While wearing a T-shirt is intuitive, many participants don’t feel like wearing pants, and it is a terrible mistake.
(2) It’s always nice if you mute yourself when not talking. Yes, I know the host can mute you too. The thing is (and I am talking as a teacher here), the host can have too much going on; it’s not possible to control everything, some things will slip out. Step up to the plate and do click on the mic.
(3) It’s always nice if you check for background noise beforehand. Decided to join a group meeting from a cafe? Or to do a presentation next to a construction site? Probably, not the best idea. Eventually, you want people to hear your story and what you’re trying to deliver – and this can only be reached if the listeners can focus on your voice.
Now, those were more-or-less reasonable requests which most academics probably agree with. However, sometimes the virtual environment raises controversial issues that touch upon ethics, equality and tolerance. I wanted to take a closer look at the possibly biggest concern of all – the “do I have to have my video on”.
The benefits of a video are numerous. It adds a personal touch to a conversation, allows you to use body language for supporting your opinion and to have more control over everyone’s attention. Plus, a real face potentially strengthens the relationship with collaborators, colleagues and supervisors.
Video works very well when you already know each other and you’ve communicated before. However, when the group is new (e.g. at a conference, at a class, at a webinar), some participants might feel uncomfortable showing their faces.
It goes hand-in-hand with the idea of being judged by appearance.
Students, for instance, might feel vulnerable during seminar discussions. You show your face at a class and – very often – before you say a word, you are judged by your look. It’s not bad itself, rather it’s a part of who we are. However, it gets ugly when this judgement affects perception of what you’re trying to express. Say person X wants to talk about the migrant crisis of 2014. This person is judged differently by whether it’s a man from Finland or a man from Syria. Listeners will for sure add the opinion to the person and make a conclusion based on both, not on the opinion per se. This can potentially raise conflicts and misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
The same goes for researchers. Unfortunately, we can’t deny that many early career academics are subject to discrimination by gender, orientation, skin colour, clothes representing religion (therefore – e.g. misrepresentations in citations). For them, a possibility to present their research at a conference with video off is exceptional. It’s a clear chance to be evaluated exclusively by your research and nothing else. The problem is the lack of body language and “connection” with the listeners. When I attended a conference this summer, talks from people with video were clearly more engaging than from people that had videos off. So, if you’re an academic giving a talk, make sure your voice and your slides are strong, persuasive and captivating, so that absence of face won’t affect people’s attention.
And one last thought: even though the talks about making a video compulsory for most occasions are sometimes raised in the academic society, we need to think of those who might have a reason not to show their faces. All in all, it’s the freedom of choice that we should care for.