How Tall People Actually Are
And Other Surprising Things About Moving from Zoom to the Real World
Happy summer, gang. I am continuing to write on a monthly-ish cadence, which I am proud of. My last article which dove deep into foreign rap music wasn’t exactly a massive hit but I had a blast writing it so I guess that’s ok.
Also, we’re at 293 subscribers. That’s dangerously close to 300 subscribers, which everyone knows is the inflection point for global acclaim and financial security. I know we can get there.
As always, appreciate you sharing with friends who you think would enjoy.
In March 2020, video conferencing became my new reality overnight. Colleagues that were once full-fledged, living and breathing organisms snuck their way into laptop screens, appearing in their full pixelated glory with kids and partners and plants in tow.
We showed up for each other, day after two-dimensional day, talking and talking and talking, deciding, deliberating, asking can you hear me alright, and are you on mute and Oh, what part of New York?
But then a vaccine arrived in January (thank god we suck at predicting things), and the US started skiing down the bunny slope of case counts and death rates. We’re now at an important juncture where many Americans are being pulled out of the inertia of sweatpant-Zooms back into the three-dimensional world of co-working.
Although my employer has yet to announce in-person office plans, I’ve started having in-person meetings with colleagues I’ve only met through my screen. And boy, has it been a trip.
Here are the things I found bizarre when meeting people IRL.
It’s hard to tell how tall people are on Zoom. Our brains extrapolate a person’s full avatar based only on a pair of shoulders holding up a head. But since video angles distort dimensions, and because we aren’t perfectly proportional beings, that avatar tends to be off when it meets reality.
Limbs are longer or shorter, heads are bigger or smaller, and sometimes I find myself tilting my head up at a person who seemed like they’d be my height. The discrepancies aren’t usually huge but they are large enough to notice.
It now makes sense to me why most stories about celebrity encounters start with they were taller/shorter than I imagined.
On video, we miss the little things that make a person who they are. You realize people have hand gestures that are often hidden by the camera’s frame. You see how they order coffee. What they do with their phone in the meeting (face up on the table? face down? Out of sight?).
And there are other details too that’d take years to learn about in a digital world (if ever). People are surprised, for example, to see me roll up on a little red skateboard, although most of my friends know that’s how I get around.
Those are the things that make us, us. And I believe that having a more complete view into what a person is like — the marginalia of their being — humanizes them for us. It makes it easier to feel compassion and build empathy.
Personal details stick better
Maybe it’s just me, but the details of people’s lives stick better. It’s easier to remember the names of people’s kids, whether they have a dog or a hamster (or a dog that looks like a hamster), vacation plans, where they grew up — that kind of stuff.
It makes sense: it’s easier to pay attention to a human physically in front of you than pixels on a screen. This means stories land better, which means we are more emotionally invested in what people tell us. And since our memory is so attached to emotions, we walk away from in-person hangouts remembering way more details than through multiple virtual hangs.
Feels like Virtual Reality
Meeting people IRL for the first time after dozens of video calls with them just feels surreal, at least for the first few minutes. It’s like the graphics of their face is higher resolution than my brain is used to rendering, so it needs a few minutes to recalibrate.
A friend compared it to wearing VR goggles, which feels apt. I am so used to seeing people in a very specific context that in some conversations I even caught my arms’ muscle memory going for my home office chair’s armrests.
Conversations just feels more natural. Online, our conversations tend to come in chunks: person A’s spiel > person B’s spiel > etc. Interrupting people feels rude or awkward at least in part because we have way less body language to go off. In person, interruptions become part of the natural back-and-forth.
There’s also no “lag” in real life, and you don’t realize it until you spend a year hidden from people how crucial timing is in making interruptions (and conversations generally) feel natural. In fact, researchers sprinkled in artificial delays to video calls and found that these make it substantively harder for people to build rapport and feel a sense of belonging.
You also don’t just lose whole paragraphs thanks to a bad WiFi connection.
Less Conscious of Time
In the world of digital calendars and video calls, most interactions are 30 minute or 1 hour blocks. Maybe a few 15 minute ones if you’re lucky. You constantly have an eye on the clock to make sure you’re not late to your next 30 minute block.
If you have a lot to talk about, you have to be strict on the agenda to make sure you get through your items. If you don’t have a lot to talk about, the momentum of the block still somehow carries you to the end of it.
But in person, especially when meeting people outside of packed schedules, you take as much time as you need. This can be 5 minutes, or it can be 3 hours.
And this is good thing in my mind. It means we are more present in the moment. And a lot of the best ideas come not from structured discussions but from conversations that don’t have a strict agenda to get through.
It’s easy to forget that for most of the pandemic we ran around aggressively shushing anyone who dared mention a return to normal. No, no, there’s no return to normal, headlines reminded us. The world will now be forever unrecognizable. Big cities will die. We poured one out for the retail industry, and events and airlines too.
Underpinning all of this is the belief that we’ve finally “unlocked” video calling as a society — that if it isn’t a perfect substitute for in-person meetings, it’s pretty damn close, mostly obviating the need for in-person interaction.
But in my mind there are essential upsides to spending time in person, frequently and consistently (except, maybe, knowing how tall someone actually is). Conversations are more natural and productive. And relationships, which are the foundation for successful collaboration, are much easier to build.
There’s no denying that some things have changed irrevocably. But because of how much we get out of in-person interaction, I believe life will soon feel a lot like it did pre-COVID. Frankly, it’s already happening. Companies big and small are signing new office leases, events that went digital last March are returning to physical spaces, festivals are announcing their headliners.
In the lovely words of Samuel Beckett: the sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new.
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