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The Performative Nature of Video Conferencing is Exhausting

I remember the precise moment I decided I no longer wanted to be an actress. My back was on the floor, chin pointed toward the ceiling with my mouth wide open allowing an indescribable moan to exit my mouth. It was a typical Friday morning in my undergraduate voice class where we practiced Alexander Technique, a method that many stage actors use to connect emotion to breath. My professor encouraged the class to paint the colors of our voice onto the ceiling and with that I decided to go to j-school. My voice has plenty of color, but not that kind.

However, amid the Coronavirus pandemic, I find myself acting for the first time in eight years, but this time with my co-workers. The immediate jump to videoconferencing for those of us who are able to work from home in order to practice physical distancing has made us all reluctant thespians. Instead of performing Shakespeare for the groundlings, our stages are Webex, Microsoft Teams, Hangouts, Skype, Zoom and a gang of other teleconferencing software programs. (Zoom alone had added over a million more users in the first quarter of 2020 than it did in all of 2019.)

By the time you video chat with your parents and schedule a Netflix Party with friends, it’s easy to be blurry eyed from staring at the screen all day.

Like any good actor, we have objectives and tactics, but what remains true about American workplace culture outside of the theater is that our goal is not to reach some higher truth. It’s moving the needle on the bottom line, which is not as strong an objective as CEOs would like it to be during a time of such uncertainty. Much like angsty teens post filtered images of themselves adorned with antlers and flowers above the hashtags #boredaf, #chill and #mood, we too are performing emotions for our colleagues that may not reflect our actual experiences of this pandemic.

As human beings, it’s natural for us to respond to the emotions of the people we interact with. So, when you meet with your extroverted co-worker who is awash with dread about the absence of happy hour, your stressed supervisor who is also trying to homeschool children or your glass half-full best friend, you’re giving them each something different. This has always been the case, but now we’re in high definition. We are hyperaware of our facial expressions and gestures in front of the web cam, animating ourselves in unnatural ways in order to make others convince ourselves and others that everything is fine.

We’re doing multiple performances per day. Everything someone would’ve stopped by your office for or sent an email about has become a video conference. These conferences are no longer just a time to meet with clients in other states or countries, but also to check in on everyone’s emotional health. But, in a workplace culture that typically punishes vulnerability, who wants to be the one to say out loud everything is not okay? Who has the courage to say I don’t care about this job because I know three people who have died from this virus in the last week. The theater of the internet only allows for performative tragedy, not actual calamity.

This is exacerbated by the fact that leave policies and promotion practices at most jobs don’t honor the process of recovering from grief, especially when it threatens profit margins. There is a mental and emotional tug-of-war happening in the minds of American workers who are craving connection, but are scared to reveal what’s real. But we need to bring our genuine selves to life more now than ever. This is the time to reach out for help when we’re not okay. Take those mental health days and clock out early, because at this point no one on the planet will get out of at least knowing somebody who knows somebody who contracted and/or died from COVID-19.

The irony of it all is that we’re all seeking the same thing out of these video calls that people seek from live theater: engagement, enlightenment, catharsis and a good story. Alexander Technique is also being encouraged to help people cope with stress during this pandemic.

As we continue to smile clownishly wide or hang our heads dramatically low, it’s important to check in on our authenticity. Now is not the time to be an emotional martyr to save face or avoid burdening people with the weight of your emotions. We’re all experiencing turbulence and applying face masks so we might as well tell the truth about it.

Humans are meant to be together and this is a difficult moment. I find hope in knowing that someday soon, we’ll be back to sitting cheek-to-cheek next to strangers, feeling their body heat and hearing their breath, as we do in theater and life. In the meantime, while we’re navigating unbotheredness, disappointment, optimism and defeat, let’s remember to make space for each other to paint the colors of our voices in all of their intensity.

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