Life

Coronavirus, virtual calls and the future of communication: does Zoom have the potential to kill small talk?

Has the coronavirus pandemic changed the way we communicate forever? We asked a linguistics expert to explain how our obsession with Zoom might impact the way we interact in the future.

If someone had asked me to guess what Zoom was back at the beginning of March, I’d probably have said something along the lines of an ice lolly or teen space drama. I’m not afraid to admit I had never heard of the now infamous video calling platform – and I never could have predicted how big a part of life it would become.

Flash forward three months later, and Zoom is no longer a video calling app used for work conferences and the occasional chat with friendsit’s a way of life. It’s inspired countless memes, been the source of hilarious anecdotes and become part of the English language; it is now 100% acceptable to use Zoom both as a noun “shall we chat on Zoom?” and a verb “shall we Zoom?”.

It’s no surprise then that our reliance on video calling platforms such as Zoom is shaping and transforming the ways we communicate in lockdown. According to Jennifer Dorman, a sociolinguistic and internet linguistics expert and senior instructional designer at language learning app Babbel, the way we communicate – both verbally and physically – has already changed. 

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“As we continue to connect digitally for work and even with relatives and loved ones, body language has become more important than ever,” she explains. “Gestures have to be performed in a more exaggerated and obvious way, since we cannot often rely on eye contact with delays in video calls. This means the way we present ourselves to others and accentuate our speech may have changed dramatically just to adapt to this new medium of communication.”

Dorman also explains that our reliance on non-verbal communication – which includes everything from facial expressions and eye movement, to body posture and ‘non word’ sounds, such as laughing – has decreased greatly as we engage in more virtual communication methods.

A Zoom call
Our use of video calling platforms such as Zoom has meant we're unable to rely as heavily on non-verbal communication as we would in a face-to-face interaction.

“Linguistic studies suggest that anywhere between 70-90% of the meaning of a face-to-face conversation is transmitted via nonverbal cues, which are helpful in regulating, modifying and controlling the message being communicated. However, in a remote setting, we can’t rely on many of these cues to infer meaning or get our point across to others, as it’s harder to see an eye roll on video or get across a sarcastic tone via text.”

Finally, Dorman points out, a shift to virtual communication could mean that we’re less likely to engage in the niceties and non-productive chatter of a conversation, especially when it comes to the people we work with and don’t know personally. 

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You might have noticed this shift in conversations with your work colleagues. While, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was an inclincation to ask “how’s lockdown treating you?” or “what’s working from home like?” now, there’s a lot less small talk to contend with. And because we now have to schedule a video chat with someone in order to talk, there’s a tendency to cram each conversation with ‘important’ information – and leave no time for small talk.

“With the huge rise in digitally mediated communication, there are now fewer opportunities for casual and ad hoc conversations with people we’d otherwise interact with on a regular, frequent basis,” Dorman points out. “As we experience less ‘hey, I have a quick question…’ or ‘can I pop round for a cup of tea?’ type-interruptions, we will be forced to ‘schedule’ our discussions with colleagues, or even friends and family from different households, via video. 

“This often leads to maximizing our time syndrome, characterised by the expectation that all of our interactions must have an agenda, yielding decisions and action items. Thus, even when it may just be a ‘hey, I have a quick question’ or ‘hey, I want to talk for the sake of it’, people tend to build out a more expansive agenda or list of things they want to talk about in anticipation of a scheduled talk.”

She continues: “This could result in a greater burden of both participation and follow-up expectations, as we place more weight on our discussions and favour heavier, meatier chats over the light banter that we might have otherwise exchanged over food or coffee, or with drinks at a party. 

“Additionally, having less of what we call ‘proximity support’ – the simple body language that we subconsciously observe during face-to-face interaction – we simply can’t pick up on the meaningful glances that we do in-person, which means we may not pick on cues to stop talking, change the subject, or get a little less serious. This makes all digital communications – even those casual conversations with friends and family – feel more like ‘work’ and less like ‘fun’.”

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As more and more of our communication shifts online and we spend less time speaking face-to-face, it seems our reliance on – and love of – small talk could be dwindling. Even in the future, as some semblance of ‘normality’ returns to our lives, the shift towards flexible working and virtual meetings could mean the way we communicate is forced to adapt to our new way of life. 

One thing’s for sure: no matter what happens over the coming months or years, the spontaneous, time-wasting beauty of small talk will always have a special place in my heart.

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