Guest blog: Why are Zoom meetings so exhausting and frustrating?

Lockdown has made us all very familiar with remote working – and that has meant a great deal of time on various kinds of online meeting platforms: Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and many more. Lifeline or burden? Andrea Bruun and Ditte Zachariassen report.

Andrea Bruun, University College London
Ditte Zachariassen, Aarhus University

When the pandemic hit, it forced us to stay home and limit social contact. We were told to work remotely and use online platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Skype for our meetings – for all kinds of meetings, even social gatherings such as family dinners, happy hour and pub quizzes happened online..

An abundance of guidelines to improve video meetings were put out by communication consultants, psychologists, and even researchers of workplace talk-in-interaction. But it felt like something was missing.

Why are online encounters so exhausting – not at all the same as talking and being together with people as in the actual world?

This question became acutely relevant to us when yet another DanTIN workshop in June was moved online. The workshop was planned as a team building-like camp stay, and now we were instead facing two full days of Zooming from home. Exhausted at the mere thought of this, we began talking about how hard managing turn-taking is in online meetings. As conversation analysts, we felt that we should be able to see from an interactional point of view why it is so difficult to adapt to online communication – or at least, we would be able describe some of the differences.

Teachers debriefing meeting in Zoom. 
Top left to the right: Mic, May and Jay. Front middle: May. 

Based on a single recording of a Zoom meeting between teachers (see image) and a couple of days of intense brainstorming, we began writing up all the differences between online and physical interaction we could think of. Right now, we are working on an article on five topics: openings; speaker selection; alignment and affiliation; delay of repair; and closings. We illustrate the analysis with examples of these in our transcribed recording of a teachers’ meeting.

For each of the five parts, we present relevant theory, show a couple of examples, and then discuss which interactional limitations video meetings have compared to face-to-face interaction. Relevant theory includes analyses of the usage of address terms, fractured ecologies, and gaze perception, as well as more traditional CA insights in turn-taking, sequentiality, alignment, affiliation, and repair. For example, have a look at this use of Mic’s name:

Using names is often recommended for video meetings where gaze is not available for speaker selection. However, this strategy does not come for free, since using people’s names in interaction can have marked functions as well such as disaligning and disaffiliating. In this example, Jay uses Mic’s name when saying that Mic was responsible for doing a specific activity: He was supposed to upload a recording. Mic hasn’t uploaded this recording, and he goes on providing a long and almost apologising account of why from line 4 and onwards, even extending the shown extract. The response includes several words marking a dispreferred response such as the nåmen ‘well’, altså ‘but’ and øhm ‘eh’ as well as several restarts and longer pauses. So the usage of address terms for speaker selection is one example of a practice, which might feel odd because we most often use address terms for other things in face-to-face interaction.  

Considerations on the format and the purpose of our work was clear from the beginning: We wanted to place ourselves between the guidelines from communication bureaus and the hardcore academic work being done on online interactions. Research on online interaction often focuses on institutional interaction, and instead we wanted to look at video used for less goal-oriented interaction.

Sympathy, not advice!

We did not want to produce or provide guidelines to all the frustrated pandemic-quarantined Zoomers. Instead, we wanted to sympathize with them (and with ourselves). It’s alright. If video happy hour with colleagues doesn’t do it for you, there is a reasonable explanation. You are simply doing overtime work because so many of your usual interactional resources are limited.

PDuring the lockdown, people have used software originally designed for business meetings as platforms for family dinners, pub quizzes and after work-beers. We wonder if different degrees of formality result in different levels of exhaustion? Nurturing relationships with friends and family is probably even more difficult than work meetings when certain interactional resources are unavailable. Or, as psychologist Gianpiero Petriglieri (as quoted on puts it: ‘It doesn’t matter whether you call it a virtual happy hour, it’s a meeting, because mostly we are used to using these tools for work’.