It’s Time to Set Culture Norms Around Online Engagement

Written by Heather Mason, CEO, Caspian Agency

A photo of a digital projection of a hand reaching through a laptop screen to shake hands with the laptop user.
Image by kiquebg from Pixabay

Humans as a species have spent thousands of years crafting culture norms for how to communicate with each other. These norms vary from culture to culture, but in general, we have been conditioned to follow certain rules when engaging with other people. And when those rules are broken, we inherently feel uncomfortable. With the onset of COVID-19, the sudden shift from in-person gatherings to online events means that those norms have gone out the window. Even worse, we haven’t consciously established anything in their place. Instead, we’re all having to navigate an unexpected and unusual communication landscape, and I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one feeling a little uncomfortable.

Zoom fatigue is already a known and accepted concept, but I think the reasons behind it go much deeper than just sitting in a chair and watching a screen. We’re operating in a completely alien environment of connection. That’s why it’s time to consciously establish culture norms around online engagement, and call attention to what we want in our online interactions. It will take time for online communications to establish the natural, expected, and intricate conversation rules that have developed over time, but we can start with drawing attention to those listed below.

Permission to Look Away

First and foremost, we need to give each other permission to look away from the screen. When we used to meet in-person, no one ever expected you to stare straight at them every second that they were speaking. So why do we now expect everyone to stare intently into their screens for an entire Zoom meeting? Let’s face it, holding that pleasant listening expression is tiring! People need to know that they can look away without being perceived as disrespectful or inattentive. Most people will probably use this time to take notes, but in general, they need to know that it’s okay to give their eyes a break, and that it’s not only natural, but expected.

Permission to Turn the Camera Off or Away

This one may be used less frequently, but people need to know when they are not required to have their camera on, or on them, at all times. Especially if meetings run longer than an hour. People need to know when they can turn off their camera for bio breaks, to refill water glasses, or even turn their screen towards a wall so that they won’t ‘disappear’ if they turn off their camera. It should be made clear that if family members or pets make unexpected appearances, it’s not going to be perceived as rude to switch off the camera to handle interruptions. The fear of being perceived as rude not only makes people uncomfortable, it also makes them anxious. Taking a moment to reassure everyone that it’s okay to turn off their cameras, or turn them away, will go a long way in alleviating that anxiety.

Permission to Introduce Yourself

Introductions are the foundation of any communication. But without handshakes, hugs, or fist bumps available in the virtual world, it’s time to set a new cultural norm for online introductions. Introducing yourself in the chat and where you’re calling in from is already on its way to becoming a norm in Zoom meetings, but we should take this one step further. Whether it’s a small meeting of three or four people, or a webinar with many more, be sure to clearly outline how and when people should introduce themselves. It’s important to note that this doesn’t have to mean verbal introductions. You can always facilitate this ahead of time by having everyone send in their bios and headshots. What is key is having a system in place that will not only set people at ease, but will set the tone for a great meeting from the start.

Permission to Ask a Question

Similar to introductions, asking questions is a crucial part of most meetings. Now that we’re all on screens, it’s important to let people know how and when to do this. Similar to in-person gatherings, this process will likely vary from organization to organization and event to event. What’s important is that everyone is informed of that process from the beginning, whether you raise your hand, nod, or use tech to do so.

Permission to Doodle

This may seem silly, but studies have shown that people who doodle during meetings retain up to 29% more information than those who don’t. Furthermore, the research shows that doodling helps relieve tension during meetings, helps people focus, and allows listeners to better grasp new concepts. So with that in mind, tell your participants to doodle away!

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