During the pandemic, video calls became a way for me to connect with my aunt in a nursing home and with my extended family during holidays. Zoom was how I enjoyed trivia nights, happy hours and live performances. As a university professor, Zoom was also the way I conducted all of my work meetings, mentoring and teaching.
But I often felt drained after Zoom sessions, even some of those that I had scheduled for fun. Several well-known factors – intense eye contact, slightly misaligned eye contact, being on camera, limited body movement, lack of nonverbal communication – contribute to Zoom fatigue. But I was curious about why conversation felt more laborious and awkward over Zoom and other video-conferencing software, compared with in-person interactions.
As a researcher who studies psychology and linguistics, I decided to examine the impact of video-conferencing on conversation. Together with three undergraduate students, I ran two experiments.
The first experiment found that response times to prerecorded yes/no questions more than tripled when the questions were played over Zoom instead of being played from the participant’s own computer.
The second experiment replicated the finding in natural, spontaneous conversation between friends. In that experiment, transition times between speakers averaged 135 milliseconds in person, but 487 milliseconds for the same pair talking over Zoom. While under half a second seems pretty quick, that difference is an eternity in terms of natural conversation rhythms.