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Sitting in a chair has never been so tiring: why video calls are so exhausting

We’re not commuting to work, not busy running from place to place, and definitely not breaking any Fitbit step records. So why are we feeling so tired every afternoon? Experts say Zoom fatigue is real and might be the culprit. Plus, learn the phrasal verb “come through.”

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  • Sitting in a chair has never been so tiring: why video calls are so exhausting

    Hi there, welcome back to Plain English. I’m Jeff. JR is the producer. And this is Lesson 256 of Plain English.

    Coming up today: You know that sensation you get of being exhausted after spending the day on video calls? It’s not just you: there’s good scientific evidence behind why you feel that way. In the second half of the program, we’ll review the phrasal verb “come through”—and no, it’s not a duplicate. This is a different meaning than the one you heard in Lesson 195. We have a video that accompanies this lesson, as always. That is about how to talk about a surprising result. That, along with all the episode resources, is available at PlainEnglish.com/256.

    Let’s get going!


    Why Zoom calls are so exhausting

    I’m not commuting. I’m sleeping well. I don’t have to run from place to place; no more 4:00 a.m. wake-up calls to go to the airport. My meetings are all online, which I take from the comfort of my own home. There’s plenty of good coffee to keep me going. So why am I so tired every afternoon?

    It turns out that in-person meetings may be boring, and they may be a waste of time, but they’re not nearly as draining as Zoom calls are. In fact, video calls require a lot more of our mental energy than simple phone calls or in-person meetings do. These calls are draining the energy of homebound office workers the world over, in a way that in-person meetings rarely do. Why is that?

    For one thing, nonverbal communication is seriously impaired on a video call. In a face-to-face meeting, we give nonverbal cues all the time. Here is just a partial list of nonverbal cues we give one another in face-to-face encounters: we make eye contact; we take a deep breath before we say something; we cross our arms; we face toward or slightly away from another person; we lean back in our chairs; we stare up into space; we blink; we gesture; we fidget with something in our hands. All these nonverbal cues contribute to the conversation in one way or another.

    If I’m talking and I see that you lean forward and your eyes light up, I know I’ve engaged you and you might want to speak. If I see you turn your head slightly and raise your eyebrows, I know I haven’t convinced you of something. If I see you fidget with your hands or look away, I know I’ve lost your attention.

    Some of these nonverbal cues can come through on a video call, but not all of them. What’s more, for me to pick up on those cues, I would have to focus in on each person on the screen. That’s impossible unless you’re talking to just one or two other people. When speaking to a group of people, it’s critical to read the room to gauge people’s reactions; it’s also natural. Humans evolved as social animals. Picking up on cues like this is second-nature to us.

    But on a video call, none of that is possible. Instead, we have to compensate for the lack of nonverbal communication. We pay closer attention to what we can see. We look closer at everyone’s video camera, trying to decipher all the typical non-verbal communication out of a small box that shows a person only from the shoulders up. If the video quality isn’t very good, then you can’t read facial expressions very well.

    You’re lucky if you’re on a call with just one or two other people. But have you ever been on a gallery view? This is when you’re looking at thumbnails of all the other people on the call—sometimes a dozen or more cameras at a time. This is challenging to your brain because it’s hard to focus on the speaker. You know you should look and concentrate on just the person speaking, but the fact that he or she is just one of a dozen equally-sized video streams confuses your brain. In a conference room, you can easily train your attention on just one person; that’s much more difficult on Zoom.

    These calls are confusing our brains. It’s possible to do good work on Zoom, but we have to work harder at it—and that’s why it’s so tiring.

    There are other reasons. When you’re in a meeting and you’re not speaking, you don’t feel the pressure of other people’s eyes on you. Let’s say you have an hourlong meeting with four other colleagues. You’ll speak often, but everyone’s attention will be trained on you for fifteen minutes of that meeting. When others are speaking, you can relax a little.

    But on a video call, you have to assume everyone is watching you for all sixty minutes. You don’t get to relax your posture or lean back in your chair; if you do that, it’ll look like you’re not engaged. There’s also a natural pressure to train your eye on your screen or webcam during a video call, lest you appear disengaged. If you can see your own camera, that’s even worse: people are naturally self-conscious when they can see themselves on screen as they talk. None of this is good for your body—always facing the same direction, always tense, always feeling like you’re in performance mode.

    There’s a fluidity to in-person meetings that we still haven’t been able to replicate on video calls. It isn’t easy to know when you can talk next, if you’re listening; or when you should cede the floor if you’re speaking. The interruptions to the flow are also draining. When there’s silence in a room, it can be a time to pause and think; when there’s silence on a video call, you wonder if someone’s on mute or if someone’s audio has cut out.

    This coronavirus is terrible. But we are fortunate that video conferencing allows us to stay connected and productive in a way that would be impossible just a few years ago. But it’s not perfect—and if you feel drained by mid-afternoon, then maybe your videoconferences are the culprits.


    I take a nap. I’m not even going to try to hide the fact. The last few days, I’ve had video calls lasting three hours each and I’m exhausted. A three-hour meeting is a long meeting, but if I have that in person, it doesn’t cause me to want to pass out. But now I literally sleep for half an hour almost every afternoon. Crazy.

    What day is today? May 4. Well, today, today is April 25. But this lesson is coming out on May 4. Okay. I think it’s time that I start—start—to tell you a little bit about what’s coming starting in June. But this lesson is already very long, so maybe I’ll tell you what’s not changing. If you listen to these lessons on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or Deezer or Google Podcasts or something—then there will be no changes to the audio version of the lesson.

    In the coming weeks, I’m going to tell you about a lot of things that are changing on the web site, on PlainEnglish.com. And it is going to be amazing. There’s going to be a lot of new stuff. The existing archives are going to be re-organized. It will be a much better user experience. But the main audio lessons won’t change. The topics, the expressions. The occasional appearance by JR. All that’s going to be the same.

    Okay, enough for now—let’s get to the expression and I’ll tell you more about the new site on Thursday. But if you want to learn more, you can visit PlainEnglish.com/new and I’ll send you some more details about the new web site, including a sneak preview. PlainEnglish.com/new.

    Come through

    Today’s expression is, “Come through.” What does it mean for something to “come through” in a conversation or in a discussion? Now I know we’ve done this one before, back in Lesson 195. In that lesson, we said that when someone “comes through” for you, they’ve done something you hoped they would do. But that’s now how I mean it today.

    Today we’re going to talk about a different way of using it. We were talking about nonverbal cues and the different ways we communicate in in-person encounters. And I said, not all of those nonverbal cues come through in a video call. That means, not all of them are communicated correctly or completely. We say, come through, when we’re talking about receiving a message.

    Picture this. You’re on a Zoom call. You’re looking at the gallery view of 10 other people. Some people are bored; some are interested; some agree with what you’re saying; others don’t. How much of that are you getting just from their little screens? Some, maybe. But a lot of their nonverbal messaging doesn’t reach you. One person might turn off his video. Other person might be giving you a skeptical look, but you can’t really tell. Another one is leaning forward, but again, you just see their face. One person is spreading her hands as if to say, “Really? I don’t believe that!” But guess what? You don’t receive the vast majority of those signals. It’s not possible on a video call. Why don’t you receive them? Because those nonverbal signals don’t come through on a video call.

    Those nonverbal signals don’t come through; they don’t get communicated to you effectively. In this case, they get lost.

    Apart from video calls, when a signal or a message doesn’t come through, it’s often because of a misunderstanding or an error in judgment. Let’s say you and your co-workers are concerned there will be layoffs at your company. You’re concerned people will lose their jobs because of this coronavirus. Your boss decides she wants to put you all at ease. She sends a memo to the whole company and she says, “Hey, don’t worry. Nobody’s going to lose their job between now and the end of May.”

    Then, everyone panics: you all think you’re all getting fired at the end of May. Your boss wanted to put people at ease by saying, don’t worry about your jobs for now. But that message didn’t come through. Instead, what came through was: at the end of May, people might get fired, so we need to worry. In this case, the thing that “comes through,” is the message or signal you receive. Your boss may have wanted to send one message, but the message the came through to you—the message you received—was something different.

    Both of these examples have been when messages don’t come through. But you can also use “come through” when you do receive a message correctly. Let’s say you are in the audience at a big presentation. After the meeting, the speaker approaches you individually. He says, “I’m not sure whether I was clear about my main point. I was trying to convey optimism about the future.” That’s just an example. If you agree that this is how you interpreted his words, you can say, “Yes, that definitely came through.” That means, “Yes, I definitely received that message” during the presentation. Or, “Yes, the message you intended to send was the message we received.”

    Now let’s pretend you’re interviewing someone for a job at your company. The person you’re interviewing has a lot of energy in her voice. She is knowledgeable. She can hold her own in a complex conversation. She asks good questions. She has clearly researched the job and your company. After the interview, you might say, “Her enthusiasm for this job definitely came through.” That means you clearly received that message—she wants the job and is enthusiastic for it. Her enthusiasm came through.

    Quote of the week

    Here’s the quote, quickly, since we’re already pretty long today. “Everything that happens to you is a form of instruction if you pay attention.” That is by the author Robert Greene, in a book called Mastery, about people who had mastered their crafts—Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and others. “Everything that happens to you is a form of instruction if you pay attention.”


    That is all today. Remember, if you are interested in getting a sneak preview of the new web site, all the new features, the new colors, logo, tagline, all that stuff—just go to PlainEnglish.com/new and we’ll keep you up to date. But remember—one thing that’s not changing is these audio lessons every Monday and Thursday. So we’ll be back here on Thursday with another lesson—don’t worry!

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

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lnbaratieri
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lnbaratieri

The very best lesson. I loved it. CONGRATULATIONS.

Jeff
Admin

Glad you enjoyed it! I saw online a camera that’s made for a small room. It hooks up to a TV and the camera follows you around the room, so you don’t have to keep the same posture always. I was thinking this would be a great idea, but it’s like $800, so a little bit out of my budget. A great idea though!

Angie
Member
Angie

I’m very excited about the new stuff. I can’t wait to see the surprises. Thanks for the extra effort!!

Jeff
Admin

It’s looking good! I can’t wait for it to be out