It’s 2019. You’re having coffee with a close friend, and within seconds of putting down your chocolate éclair she’s alerted you to the blob of cream at the corner of your mouth so that you can dab it away. With her it’s trivial, though it might amuse you both. But what if the meeting had been with a new client? What if you were at an interview for a job you needed? What if you were the person interviewing candidates, or on stage at a public event? A stranger would feel less permission to mention it; and in those circumstances we might obliviously carry on with the blob of cream in full view. I’m thinking of Rudy Giuliani, hair dye and press conferences here.
‘Oh would some power the giftie gi’e us, to see ourselves as others see us’. Well, careful of what you wish for, Robert Burns: 2020 has brought us Zoom. At every meeting there is a ghost at the table – as well as ourselves, an image of ourselves on the screen – and it slightly spooks us. At least Zoom, Skype and MS Teams show us the flipped, reflected image that we are familiar with from our bathroom mirrors (though they de-flip your image on everyone else’s screen). This mitigates the uncanniness slightly, but it is still a huge distraction. We are, permanently and literally, ‘self conscious’.
‘Hide Self View’ therefore should be a boon. If you float your cursor over the three dots in the top right corner of your image during a Zoom call, one of the options that drops down allows you to switch off your own image (see picture above). Others can see you, but you are not distracted by seeing yourself. You can send your ghost back to purgatory where they belong, and then you are 100% available for the other people you are engaging with. This option is still not available in MS Teams, so it is one of the things Zoom still does better than its competitors.
But I notice that it’s not easy to deliberately give up that power that Burns is yearning for – I know the benefits of being less self-conscious, but… if I can see what they are seeing it seems like I might be slightly more in control – I can be watchful of my image, notice and wipe away treacherous blobs of cream and hair dye. And I can feel myself accepting the ghost at the table.
Video Conferencing has been a salvation for all of us this year, make no mistake – but I am still questioning its default assumptions. Human interactions float on a vast collective ocean of trust; that we won’t exploit the advantage our perspective gives us over others. If our remote working patterns mean that we can take over the policing of our own dignity – muting the sound of our children in the background, switching off the camera because our pyjamas or bedroom wallpaper make us feel vulnerable – things will have changed. An implicit set of principles, ‘behave honestly, and be generous to others’, are subtly replaced by new ones: ‘beware, they might be out to get you – don’t get caught out’. And in a blended work environment, this subtle difference will matter even more.
I see clicking ‘Hide Self View’ as a way of setting the tone for the call – saying to myself ‘I am going to trust these people like I would if we were meeting in person’. Some readers will think this approach incompatible with their work culture, or for other reasons may not feel they have that freedom; some days (and with some people) I may not feel it myself. But it’s the future I’m looking forward to, so I’m doing it today.
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