It’s the same scene today, as it has been most mornings for the past 5 months.
“What have you got planned for the day?” he asks as I pick up the daily paper from the driveway.
“Two meetings, a chat with the kids, a few email connections, WhatsApp with siblings, a report to write, an agenda to prepare and hopefully some creative writing,” I respond.
“Oh, so you’re home,” he exclaims cheekily and adds, “Don’t forget to smile. You’ll be on camera.”
In the age of coronavirus, many of us have transformed overnight from going to the office to digitally communicating from an alternate space called home. And we are increasingly relying on video conferencing apps like Zoom, FaceTime, Skype and others to correspond with our peers, with the use of video, camera and screen. In other words we are physically on camera; we are very aware of being watched, not only by our own faces but also by dozens more. We get this strange self-consciousness about how we look, positioning the Webcam so that it doesn’t angle up to add 10 pounds under the jawline to reveal the much dreaded double chin. We check our background and look behind us to see what it is people will see, or better yet, we change our background to seem more professional and hide the clutter, the mess or the intimacy of a room. And then there’s the child or husband who walks into the room to pick up an item or ask a question. And what of the pet, that beloved dog that suddenly lets out an excited bark or the cat that walks across the piano in your background?
I marvel at people who look good on screen. They are poised in such a way that it’ s hard to determine between their true self and their glamorized self. They don’t flinch and they don’t seem to mind the presence of a camera. Somehow, they catch the right light and always have a perfect tilt to their chin. Personally I’m convinced that they must have that coveted photogenic gene. I, on the other hand, do not have that gene and I don’t like myself on camera. I can’t seem to relate to a camera or something that isn’t a living being. It’s not exactly baked into my DNA. However, I can live with that since I’m not that vain. What I find more intrusive is the fact that my personal space is being compromised. Facets of my life that used to be separate/private – work, friends, family, intimate relations– are all now happening in the same space because my home, like most of yours, is now my workplace, and my computer screen is my sole connection to people beyond my household. My home and workplace have merged into one, and the boundaries between my personal and professional life are beginning to erode. My personal space is being compromised.
What do I mean by personal space? It’s that which separates the self from others in that invisible bubble I’ve created to form my boundary. That same invisible space moves with me rather than being place-specific, which means I regulate the dynamics with my surroundings and there isn’t much room for intrusion in my personal life. With today’s on line gatherings, my personal space is defined by a square headshot or thumbnail image of my face, which cannot move with me and cannot be dynamically regulated to fit the surrounding except that of my kitchen, den, dining room, bedroom, etc. and which allows for intrusion by dozens of faces staring at me Brady Bunch style.
At an office away from home, I can congregate in the break room or I can poke my head down the hall to greet a colleague. At home, everything merges into one nebulous mass. And I can’t pace the room during Zoom calls, either. Instead, I feel stuck and confined to hours spent sitting in one position causing my butt to numb. Not to mention an aching back and a dull-throbbing headache and eyestrain. Even group chats like “happy hour”, designed to provide leisure don’t feel like leisure time because, call it what you will, it’s a meeting–I’m using the same virtual tool I use for work—with wine in hand.
In short, I miss the physical locations which give color to my thoughts and actions, where I have room to roam, to visit, have face-to-face chats and “gossip” with coworkers, and then an evening commute during which time I can fuss and unwind and shed my work persona as I morph with anticipation into my social and relational identities.
The world is truly shaping its new normal, and I’ll need to do all that I can to make a commitment to embrace the practices that will keep me moving forward. So, the next time I sit in front of the webcam, I’m going to forget it’s there. I will ignore its presence, and when a dozen or more headshots greet me… Oh, hell, I’ll probably flinch, and then smile.