Beating Zoom fatigue

07 December 2021

When Zoom came along last year many of us grabbed it with both hands. Eighteen months on, it seems many of us have found that good old-fashioned pen-and-paper still offers a more satisfying way to keep in touch.

Remember back in March 2020 when it was announced that we were going to go into lockdown for three weeks? (Three weeks! – we thought. How on earth will we cope with that? Little did we know…)

Then within days, someone probably told you about Zoom.

The excitement!

People had talked about video conferencing for years. Maybe you had already tried speaking with distant relatives on Facetime. Some of us had made conference calls at work. But by and large, until lockdown came along, our preference had always been to get together in person, or, if that wasn’t possible, to talk on the phone.

And then lockdown came, and everything changed.

All of a sudden we were all connecting on Zoom.

People learned how to use it in a remarkably short time. Of course, there were issues: wobbly wi-fi and user error (‘I CAN’T HEAR YOU – PRESS THE UNMUTE BUTTON, NO, THERE – IN THE CORNER OF YOUR SCREEN!), but the move to digital communication happened remarkably fast. As is so often the case, necessity gave birth to invention.

And a lot of us felt the benefits. Zoom meant we were able to work from home. We kept in touch with family, and we had a way of replicating our social lives when we were physically isolated.

And it wasn’t just Zoom, of course. Let’s not forget Teams and Google Hangouts, and various other platforms. But Zoom was the dominant one. So dominant that it was no time at all before the neologism ‘Zoom fatigue’ appeared in our lexicon.

And that’s the trouble, isn’t it?

It turned out that Zooming is exhausting!

I have a friend who Zooms for about eight hours a day, and I honestly do not know how he does it. It’s frustrating enough when people don’t operate the controls properly but there’s also something physiologically tiring about the way our eyes can’t help roving around the screen. Not to mention the difficulty of trying to ‘read the room’ when everyone is a just face in a box on our screens. And then there’s the ever-present temptation to multi-task while in a meeting, in a way that’s too obviously rude in an in-person gathering. Somehow Zoom gives us just one more way of being ‘always on’, wired for every alert and its attendant jolt of serotonin…

As the novelist Lionel Shriver said recently:

‘This Zoom stuff just doesn’t cut it.’

And yet… if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we need ways of keeping in touch with each other. We all still long for connection. Keeping ourselves to ourselves in our little brick boxes is just not possible, or healthy.

So what did we do? Well, it seemed that many of us turned to letter-writing. We reverted to good old-fashioned pen-and-paper.

When the lockdown was introduced in the Republic of Ireland last year, the postal service, An Post, sent each household two free stamps and postcards to encourage people to write to each other. It has since reported an increase in personal mail.

Riona Nolan, a 17-year-old student, says she found it a far more personal, authentic form of communication.

‘You have to really think about what you’re going to write instead of just shooting a text with a few words in it,’

she told the BBC. Riona regularly exchanges letters with her friend, who happens to live just around the corner, and also writes to her grandmother. She carried on, even when there was little news to share.

Then there’s Penpalooza, a pen pal exchange project intended to combat lockdown isolation, set up by a journalist called Rachel Syme. Tens of thousands of people have since taken part.

Liz Maguire, from Dublin, is one of those who got involved. She says that she loves the nostalgia that letter writing brings.

‘I began writing letters with Penpalooza in Summer 2020 and have since received almost 150 letters, postcards and parcels,’

she told Metro.

‘Every time I open a card I am grateful and sit with the energy of that moment. I could have one, one hundred, or one thousand letters and I can still tell you what stickers someone sent me from Canada or which bookmark came from an independent bookstore in Maryland.’

Another participant, Gabriela Benevides, from Brazil, where Covid has been particularly bad, says that writing letters have helped her through social isolation. The letters have brought her comfort at a frightening time.

‘It’s very relieving to get to spend some time communicating with people without having to be online all the time and on zoom calls.’

And in the last eighteen months, many more of us have turned to letter writing. As well as calming and therapeutic, it’s time away from a screen, which slows us down and helps us to marshal our racing thoughts.

It’s well known that doing something nice for someone else makes us happy, especially if we know they’ll really like it. Taking the time to handwrite a letter shows you care, that you’ve made an extra effort and you’ve really considered the other person.

Best of all, it’s an act of faith. It says ‘I’m here, reaching out to you. This is what’s going on in my life right now.’

But most of all, it’s a way of staying in touch in a non-virtual, non-draining way. You could say it’s literally ‘real’ communication.

Long live pen and paper!

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