Just Say No: Why It’s OK to Refuse That Zoom Call
Despite the fact that no one really likes video calls, when lockdown became a reality the whole world seemed to develop a sudden enthusiasm for this necessary evil. And it makes sense: when normal social interactions aren’t possible we try to compensate. We’re part of Zoom calls with friend groups, Google Hangouts with work colleagues, Skype calls with family members, Webexes for tutor groups. We’ve got Zooms for book clubs, Zooms for game nights, Zooms for quizzes, Zooms to co-watch Netflix, and even silent Zooms so you can feel like you’re working in a library.
If your initial eagerness for this interim solution has begun to wane, or you were never very keen in the first place, it can leave you in a weird position. You’re lonely and you want to see people and want to support those you love, but facing into yet another video call feels like an obligation. However, Sarah Knight, author most recently of F*ck No!: How to Stop Saying Yes When You Can’t, You Shouldn’t, or You Just Don’t Want To (and several other No Fucks Given Guides) is here to remind us that we can just refuse.
Knight joined us for a recent episode of Blinkist’s brand new show, Checking In, where we talk to a range of people, from bestselling authors like Knight to colleagues that we see (via video chat) every day, about how they’re learning to deal with a life lived remotely. Knight tells us that we simply don’t have to feel guilty about saying no to group calls.
In a world where everything is uncertain and anxiety hangs in the air, “it’s really important for us to be able to make decisions, for ourselves, for our lives, for our happiness, for our sanity. And being able to say no to things that we don’t want to do or can’t bring ourselves to do, or we shouldn’t be doing, is hugely important in this moment.” Check out the full conversation with Knight above and explore the rest of the series now on the Blinkist app.
Before Checking In, the author had already written a Medium post about her hatred of group Zooms where, with characteristic aplomb, she defends her (and our) right to refuse video conferences. She writes, “[r]ight off the bat, my comfort level is inversely proportionate to the number of people on the screen”, and this leaves her feeling anxious, guilty, and more panicked than before it started.
If that sounds familiar to you, you’re very much not alone. Even the most extroverted of us, or the most closely connected families and friend groups, can struggle to stay in tune when tech issues and time delays get in the way of the conversational flow. The chaos can leave you feeling disconnected, and sometimes worse and more exhausted than you initially felt before the call started. And as it turns out, ‘Zoom fatigue’ is a real thing.
According to a recent article in National Geographic, virtual interactions, especially those conducted in large groups, are taxing to the brain because it usually receives a lot more information during a conversation than just speech and pixelated faces. “Humans communicate even when they’re quiet. During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues, such as whether someone is facing you or slightly turned away, if they’re fidgeting while you talk, or if they inhale quickly in preparation to interrupt.”
As social creatures, we have evolved to pay attention to all these smaller signals to build a holistic picture of the interaction that goes beyond the verbal and visual or a head-and-shoulders view. Video interactions diminish our ability to pick up on the whole set of physical conversational data which stresses out our brains. A video conference with a range of different people intensifies this, forcing our brains to multitask and poorly interpret several people at the same time. This means the brain is both extremely focused and searching for clues it can’t find. So, if you’ve noticed a wave of exhaustion wash over you after that long team call, that’s why.
This tiredness is especially pronounced when the world is going through a crisis that already leaves people feeling anxious. There is just so much in the world to care about right now. People are getting sick, emergency services are overwhelmed in many places, and life as we used to know it has all but ground to a halt. Our individual freedoms are temporarily restricted as we try to take care of each other by staying away from those we love. We’re overwhelmed by scary news notifications, we’re swimming in visuals that we don’t even know are real and can certainly feel surreal, and social media is even noisier than ever. There’s uncertainty about the information we receive and when this state of anxiety will end. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that your great-aunt has recently discovered memes.
Though we’ve turned to the video call as a way to bridge the gap while we’re staying apart from each other—and this ability to connect on some level is no doubt one of the great things about our technological age—these conversations also drive our brain into interpretative overdrive which leaves us feeling worn out and lacking focus. This extremely wearying cocktail leads to what is known as “ego depletion”. This means that you have a limited pool of mental resources and when you’re worrying about a world in crisis and all those you love as well as being overstressed by work and brain-draining video calls, your concentration levels are impaired and you have less energy for mental activity. So if you’re struggling right now, please don’t panic that it’s just you. It’s not.
As we can’t control how long this situation will go on for, it’s important to take the reins on small things that are within our grasp. Say no to things that stress you out, rest as much as you can, get fresh air when possible, and do little things that make you happy. If you need a little more coaxing, then check out the full episode of Checking In with Sarah Knight, as well as many more, on the Blinkist app.