It’s another day at work, and I’m hoping to have a casual conversation with my boss. I’ve been planning this for a few days- I’ve even used my husband as a sounding board- and as I stand outside his office, I run through the checklist we created.
Was he smiling when he arrived that day? Does he look settled into his chair, or like he’s about to run off to a meeting? Did he sound impatient or frustrated on the phone call he just had? Deciding that the signs are in my favor, I head into his office and strike up a conversation. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope, waiting for any sign that things are about to go downhill, and my body is in constant fight-or-flight mode. A few minutes in, after he brusquely sends me out of his office, I realize retroactively that I’d chosen the wrong time, despite my precautions. I must have interrupted him, or said the wrong thing, or had the wrong look on my face. All of my painstaking preparations were for naught, and now I’ve blown my chance. After all that effort, my body feels I’ve run a marathon. That’s the exhausting routine I put myself through in order to have a normal conversation, and even though it’s barely 9AM, I feel ready for a nap.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been prone to fatigue. I’ve taken afternoon naps, had trouble waking up in the morning, and generally felt sleepy pretty consistently my whole life. Last year, at my wit’s end, I had the doctor conduct a series of blood and thyroid tests that led to her shrugging and saying, “Maybe you’re just a tired person?” What my doctor didn’t account for is the fact that I also have Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD). My learning disability makes it nearly impossible to read and decode nonverbal social cues such as facial expression, tone of voice, and physical gestures. My brain constantly has to work overtime to comprehend the cues that other people decode instantly and subconsciously. I have spent years since childhood trying to learn this nonverbal language that comes so naturally to everyone else. Every conversation feels like nonstop juggling to me; I’m always trying to keep the balls of socialization in the air. I was already exhausted, and then COVID-19 hit. Like basically everyone else, I’ve been stuck on Zoom constantly, feeling worn out after every call, and desperately typing “Why is Zoom so miserable?” into Google. There have been plenty of articles from major news sources trying to answer that question, all of them interviewing psychologists, professors, social scientists, and anyone who can offer a perspective on “Zoom fatigue.” But for me, their theories struck me as oddly familiar. Take a BBC article, for instance, which writes,
“Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat, says Petriglieri. Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy.”
National Geographic explains the importance of these cues more in-depth, saying,
“These cues help paint a holistic picture of what is being conveyed and what’s expected in response from the listener. Since humans evolved as social animals, perceiving these cues comes naturally to most of us, takes little conscious effort to parse, and can lay the groundwork for emotional intimacy.
However, a typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead. If a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language is eliminated. If the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from minute facial expressions is dashed.
‘For somebody who’s really dependent on those non-verbal cues, it can be a big drain not to have them,’ Franklin says.”
Over and over, I see these articles talking about the stress and exhaustion that people experience when they can’t rely on nonverbal cues. Being on Zoom is frustrating, alienating, and debilitating. And that’s what I’ve experienced my whole life with NVLD. My lifelong fatigue makes more sense now; I’ve been socializing through a pixelated screen for almost 28 years, squinting at and puzzling over people’s messages to me. The exhausting routine I perform before each conversation with my boss is equivalent to someone else’s marathon Zoom call, and I go through that same process over and over, every day.
Oddly enough, reading these “Zoom fatigue” articles has made me feel validated and seen. I eagerly welcome the Zoom fatigued masses into my world with open arms. Yes, it is miserable to work overtime constantly, trying to figure out what someone is telling you when so much of the natural conversational elements are unavailable to you. Yes, it is endlessly frustrating to never quite know what’s going on in a conversation, and to stumble along without the crutches of nonverbal cues. Just like I felt while talking to my boss, you’re constantly on your guard, wondering if you misinterpreted someone, offended someone, or just missed the message entirely. It’s mentally and physically exhausting to parse conversational cues consciously and not instinctively.
My hope is that people will not forget just how hard it was to socialize successfully on Zoom after this is all over. I don’t want everyone to return to taking for granted how easy it is to communicate “face-to-face” when you don’t have any learning disabilities. Everyone without NVLD will be able to return to their easy conversations, relishing in the wealth of nonverbal cues that they understand so naturally, while I’ll continue on with my squinting and stumbling. And so, I hope people have more compassion for those who will continue to live their lives as though conversing through a laggy, grainy screen. For a few months, you all lived the way I’ve always lived, and you’ve seen how exhausting it is. From now on, then, when people ask me why I’m so tired, I’ll just say, “Remember Zoom fatigue?,” and hope for some understanding.
**Also published on Medium.
I am a teacher and PhD student living in California. I was diagnosed with NVLD at the age of 9 in 2001; after growing up with NVLD, I now advocate for and teach students with learning differences.Share your own story