Shelter in place orders, quarantines, and social distancing have turned a lot of our ordinary interactions into virtual ones. But even when video transmits our spoken words loud and clear, many cues that we rely on in face-to-face conversations sometimes fall silent. Linguistics Professor Robin Queen explains some of our missed connections and offers a few dos and don’ts.

LSA: Even when we're prepared for virtual meetings, they don't feel the same as in person meetings. What is missing in our video conversations?

Robin Queen: I think there is a range of things that are missing. Some of it is just that we’re working with two dimensions instead of three, so we have limited sensory information and that makes video conversation a very different kind of thing.

Also, the way language works in face-to-face interaction is just very different than video interactions, so video interactions can feel less steady. We have to pay a lot more attention to interacting over video than we do for many aspects of our regular day-to-day, face-to-face life and that adds to what makes video conferences feel more tiring than face-to-face meetings.

Why is taking turns during a video conference sometimes so clumsy?

RQ: In conversations, we are exquisitely tuned to two things. First, we work really hard to minimize the amount of time between turns. There's cultural variation about how long that time should last, but people try to avoid gaps that are longer than expected. Second, they also try to avoid talking simultaneously, which is known as conversational overlap.      

What counts as overlap varies a little bit cross-culturally, too, but those two pieces are pretty fundamental to all conversational interaction, and video conferencing throws them off a little bit. When people are trying to have video conferences that mimic certain kinds of conversational interactions, the cues just don't line up as we're expecting. For instance, in American English, if someone wants to have a turn at talking, they will sometimes suck in their breath. That's harder to notice over video conference, so it's harder to know when somebody else wants to talk and you should end your turn.

Just now, as I was talking, you said, mm hmm. That's another really important signal that we use to know whether we should keep talking, if the person we're talking to is listening to or agreeing with us. Depending on the way it’s said, it also helps us know when we should stop talking. The lag over the video often times causes us to hear the mm-hmm at the wrong time and think that the other person is wanting to take the conversational floor when really they’re just signaling that they’re listening.

In face-to-face conversations, we also rely a lot on gestural cues. When we're ending a turn, for example, we often put our hand down, which signals to people that your turn is over and you're ready to cede the floor. But that doesn’t translate online. I mean, if I wanted to make that kind of gesture in video, I’d have to put my hands in front of my face. 

When do video conference conversations work best?

RQ: Sometimes video conferences work great. In a kind of traditional format, where I'm going to talk and then we're going to have a question-and-answer period—those work pretty well because they're very formal and the turn taking is very clearly delineated. It also generally works well when you have more moderated turn taking.

But if you're trying to brainstorm or if you just want to talk about something everyone in the conversation is engaged in, that's where it gets a little hard. If you've got people coming in and out on the video so that you can't see them, that makes video conferences harder too, as does the fact that the technology often glitches at some point. The video hangs or there's something weird in the sound. All of that messes us up because we're so exquisitely tuned to those turn-taking points.

Early on, when people were doing all these virtual cocktail parties and virtual whatever, I asked them how it worked. Pretty much they all said it was awkward, even though people also needed it and wanted to have those connections. I've asked a lot of millennials and so-called digital natives, and they also say that their interactions tend to be a little bit awkward. Conversations are definitely affected by size of the group. The more people you have on the video, the more awkward it tends to become. The video just adds a mediation level that shifts consistently for everybody and competes with our face-to-face sense of turn-taking.

The kinds of conversations also matter. When you’re hanging out with friends and family, you know them better so you might be more willing to call out certain kinds of overlaps or other things that aren't working and talk about them in ways that I haven't seen as much over video that's work-related.

How long do you think it would take for us to develop and fluently use virtual conversational cues for video conversation?

RQ: I think people would probably figure it out pretty quickly because that's the kind of species we are. I imagine if we continued to do this for several months, we would have pretty good systems that would make the cues more apparent to us. I think you saw that within a day of everything going online. People figured out that everyone needs to turn their mic off when they enter a meeting, right? But that first day, it was just a cacophony because people had their mics on. We didn't know how to sit or where to be or what things should look like, and I think all of that got sorted out pretty quickly. In one-on-one video conferencing, a lot of the turn-taking strategies have already been worked out.

And what are your top dos and don'ts in video conversations?

RQ: It's funny, there are so many dos and don'ts guides for video conferencing on the web, but very few of them are about actually having a conversation!

One of my “dos,” then, is understanding you need to do more to signal that you want to talk. Raising your hand or using chat in some way can be helpful. But my biggest “do” is to just be generous and charitable with each other as we figure these things out, to understand that everyone's trying to make the technology work and it's just not a perfect technology yet. No one's being stupid or obtuse or necessarily even talking more than their fair share. I mean, everybody's trying to figure out what the dynamics are. We just haven't yet developed the same exquisite sense for how online face-to-face interactions work.

As for the “don'ts,” try to be careful about jumping in and wanting to contribute because it leads to weird overlap followed by a weird silence where everyone's trying to figure out who's going to talk now. And don't try to have the kinds of interactive, overlapping conversations that you're used to having in real life yet. I mean, those may develop as possibilities as we figure the cues out better.

To me, what is so fascinating is how in tune we actually are with each other and able to interact in a way that works for everybody. I mean, we are so good at it! Yes, we were thrown by this new cultural situation, but we're still so tuned into the way we talk to each other. We adapt very quickly. And we will with video conferencing too.