As many of us continue to adjust to working (or studying) from home, there’s been a proliferation of pieces about digital communication in today’s Age of Zoom Meetings. Despite the obvious benefits offered by these platforms during a pandemic, both researchers and “laypeople” have explored why exactly Zoom meetings can be so frustrating. Technological failures and glitches clearly play a part, but many think there is something more fundamental to the medium itself at work. Linguistic anthropologist Susan Blum, for instance, had some especially insightful thoughts about why Zoom—which she sees as based on a “folk model of how conversation works” (ouch!)—is so exhausting. She argues that videoconferencing is “nearly a replication of face-to-face interaction, but not quite, and it depletes our energy.” I couldn’t agree more, especially as the novelty of making your background a Minecraft world fades away. Zoomxhaustion, zoomtigue—whatever you want to call it—is real.
Zoom is especially difficult for people who stutter
While people who stutter (PWS for short) face unique communicative challenges in all parts of their life, I’ll be honest: as a PWS myself, the Age of Zoom Meetings is especially difficult. I’ve spoken with several friends who stutter, and they corroborate my feelings of exasperation with videoconferencing vs. in-person communication. Many of the things that make Zoom simply “exhausting” for fluent people make it emotionally draining and at times traumatic for PWS, especially in high-stakes videoconference settings.
Many of the things that make Zoom simply “exhausting” for fluent people make it emotionally draining and at times traumatic for PWS, especially in high-stakes videoconference settings
[Before diving into the “why,” a quick introduction to stuttering. Traditionally, stuttering is conceived of as a communication disorder involving disfluencies in a person’s speech (often repetitions, blocks, or prolongations). Scientists don’t really know what causes stuttering, but they do know it is basically neurological and physiological, not psychological. While children who develop a stutter often “grow out of it,” those who start stuttering after early childhood rarely become non-stutterers. Here’s a link to a page created by the National Stuttering Association for more information about stuttering. Because of its current relevance, here is a great piece about Joe Biden as a person who stutters. Finally, for people into linguistics, here is a thought-provoking reframing of stuttering as a speech variety.]
The disembodied voice
Most of the challenges faced by PWS result from the paucity of (or in the case of audioconferencing, the lack of) visual information. This constriction of communication—the inability to harness our full communicative toolbox, in a sense—can have frustrating ramifications for both the PWS and the listener.
First, in cases where the videoconference is the PWS’s first interaction with someone new, the dearth of visual information increases the likelihood that the listener will not understand what’s happening during a disfluency—they will not be able to “read” the person as a PWS. The moments of disfluency displayed by PWS, when conveyed over a platform like Zoom, can so closely resemble technological “glitches” that PWS are often accused of being on mute or having bad Internet service (when in fact, we are just stuttering!)
This adds a new and debilitating layer to the challenges PWS face. During in-person interaction, while we are still often misunderstood, we don’t have to worry about a stutter being seen as a technological glitch (humans don’t have mute/unmute buttons, after all–though I’m sure many of us could think of several people we wish that did!). Secondary behaviors associated with stuttering, things like (involuntary) gestures and hesitations, help communicate the message that “Hey, I stutter” and “give me a moment.” These are all are stripped away in Zoom-mediated communication, leaving PWS to face the stark choice of explicitly “outing” themselves, or appearing technologically maladroit. Neither is a pleasant option—the latter is a lie and makes us look incompetent, and the former can be emotionally laborious and put the interlocutor on the defensive. These misunderstandings, in the way that they derail the conversation and require interactional “repair,” are draining and put the onus on the PWS to constantly explain themselves.
The moments of disfluency displayed by PWS, when conveyed over a platform like Zoom, can so closely resemble technological “glitches” that PWS are often accused of being on mute or having bad Internet service
Similarly, even when interacting with people who know you stutter, the lack of visual data can make it difficult for a PWS to signal the start and end of their speaking turn. When a PWS begins speaking, especially in a circumstance where they anticipate stuttering, they often (again, possibly unconsciously) use nonverbal cues like changing their posture, gaze, or beginning to make hand gestures. All humans do this, of course, but PWS might rely on them as a way to hold the floor when they are having a speech block and want to prevent others from talking over them. Bodily gestures also help to signal the end of a speaking turn, and when it is OK for a speaker to start talking without feeling like they are interrupting.
Few of these communicative resources are available to PWS in conferencing. In my own experience, I speak much less on Zoom calls because I don’t have time to begin a speaking turn. Stuttering most commonly happens at the beginning of the utterance, and by the time I start talking, someone might already have the floor. In cases where I do really want or have something to say, I might use a filler word like “um” or “well” to hold my place as I begin. This isn’t ideal; especially in the business world, it can come across as “unconfident” or “unpolished.”
One of the most interesting unintended consequences I’ve observed in the Age of Zoom Meetings is indicating the end of a speaking turn as a PWS. In “real life,” I find people rarely talk over me when I am having a disfluency—because they see what is going on. In online conferencing with people who know I stutter, they almost always treat me with respect—but they sometimes simply don’t know when I am finished. So they will say “Sorry to interrupt you, Jacob…” when I have actually finished my turn. Of course I appreciate their intentions, but the effect of this apology is that it disrupts the flow of the conversation, makes me feel singled out, and can even put pressure on me to “keep speaking” if the assumption was that I wasn’t done. Other writers have already remarked on how often we are forced to apologize for interrupting on Zoom, and all of this is only exacerbated for a PWS.
Like the telephone, Zoom is essentially a monocrop of communication—as Blum says, “all the communicative signs that embodied humans rely on are thinned, flattened, made more effortful or entirely impossible [on Zoom]. Yet we interpret them anyway.”
Zoom is also marked by the death of backchanneling. We simply don’t do this over Zoom—the playback from a “room” of people saying “Uh-hum” and “Mhm-hm” is horrendous. We also can’t really use nodding to signal we are listening, because our face is probably just a 1”x 1” sliver of someone’s screen. Backchanneling is an essential part of human communication, and the lack of it is difficult for everyone. But again, it makes things especially hard for PWS—many of whom rely on it to keep going during especially difficult disfluencies. (I have been saved many times by an especially empathetic listener in the audience who, by virtue of maintaining eye gaze with me, lets me know that they hear what I am saying.)
Finally, from a psychological perspective, it is difficult for me as a PWS to think that my entire identity on a Zoom meeting is constricted to my “disembodied voice.” PWS are obviously much more than their stutter, but over Zoom one can feel reduced to just that condition. We have less opportunity to display our passion, our confidence, our articulateness, when all we are is a stuttering voice floating through the ether. Research in digital communication backs up this feeling of being “judged”: delays on conferencing systems of even 1.2 seconds made listeners perceive the speaker as less friendly.
Zooming into the future
Many of points brought up here don’t just apply to PWS. Rather, they more broadly illuminate the limitations of digital communication in its current state. I don’t know if or how these shortcomings can be improved upon, but I do hope we can build empathy for some of the challenges they might pose for PWS and the infinite others who might be misinterpreted while Zooming.
Some things, of course, do help. Being on camera, and having others display their faces, is generally more helpful than audioconferencing—it softens the impact of some of the things mentioned above, but by no means removes them, especially in larger groups. Having empathetic people around also makes things easier for the PWS. But the fact of the matter is that digital communication is simply not built for people with communication disorders. Like the telephone, Zoom is essentially a monocrop of communication—as Blum says, “all the communicative signs that embodied humans rely on are thinned, flattened, made more effortful or entirely impossible [on Zoom]. Yet we interpret them anyway.”
I would love to hear others’ thoughts about The Age of Zoom Meetings. What affordances or challenges does Zoom bring to who you are?