Worried About Doing Something Embarrassing on Zoom?
The fear of doing something inappropriate or awkward during a video call.
Posted September 15, 2020
In the last few months, I’ve experienced more and more people reaching out to me to talk about their fears of doing something inappropriate or embarrassing while using Zoom or other video calling technology. Most of us have seen a dramatic increase in our use of video communication since the COVID-19 pandemic began, be it to attend classes, work, or stay in touch with family and friends, so it’s unsurprising that we’re hearing more people describing what I’ve come to think of as kind of "Zoom stage fright."
In an interview for BBC News, Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, who studies workplace wellbeing and teamwork effectiveness, explained how the awareness that we are on-screen and being watched can be anxiety-provoking: “When you're on a video conference, you know everybody's looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.”
Fears around doing or saying something embarrassing in front of others are common among those with anxiety disorders, and particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), so it is probably inevitable that for many who live with these conditions, the heightened awareness of being watched that Shuffler describes can be especially stressful. Research into self-focused attention during video chats has found that the eye-tracked gaze of women with social anxiety disorder is more likely than women with low levels of social anxiety to focus predominantly on their own camera display, as they monitor what they look like and how they appear on the screen (Vriends, Meral, Bargas-Avila, Stadler & Bögels, 2017).
Whilst many people mistakenly associate OCD with exclusively physical symptoms such as a compulsion to order, tidy or clean, having OCD simply involves having obsessions (uncomfortable thoughts and worries) that lead to compulsions (the action taken in response to the obsessions in order to neutralise, or "fix" them). Such compulsions can be mental or physical. At its heart then, OCD is a disorder of uncertainty – in French, it used to be called "la folie du doute," which literally translates to "the madness of doubt."
You can doubt the door is locked and therefore repeatedly physically check it. Equally, you can doubt whether you said or did something embarrassing Zoom and compulsively "replay" the conversation in your head to be sure that you did not. OCD is known for its insidious ability to seep into every aspect of daily life, so it’s not hard to see why so many sufferers are now concerned that they might do something bizarre whilst on webcam, be it take all their clothes off without realising it or swear at their boss. Add in the fact that sufferers often obsess over the possibility of criminal prosecution and the reality that our increased use of Zoom has essentially brought CCTV into our homes for much of the day, and it’s easy to see how a total doubt-fest can arise.
Many of us have seen the viral clips of TV interviews where some poor soul accidentally shifts or stands up, only to reveal that whilst on top they are wearing a pressed shirt and tie, on their bottom half they are sporting their boxers. For many people, these clips are fairly amusing, but for those with OCD or anxiety, the next thought is often "Oh my GOD, that could happen to me!"
Still, it is not just those with OCD or diagnosed anxiety disorders who seem to be concerned about doing something embarrassing on Zoom — although in my anecdotal experience, for those without, the worry tends to be around doing something less "shocking" or "problematic." They seem to be more likely to fret about committing more regular social indiscretions in front of their co-workers and friends, like breaking wind, or unwittingly having personal items or untidiness in the frame of their camera that they were not aware of. This makes sense – most of us experience some doubt or worry about things in our daily life. OCD arises when that doubt and the subsequent compulsions are taken to the extreme, but in the same way as many without OCD relate to the fear of from time to time worrying that they left the gas on, so too will many people relate to nagging fears that they’ve done something embarrassing while on video camera.
So what can you do?
1. Minimise your self view: Turning your own camera off on Zoom can provide a welcome relief from all the "self-scanning." As we don’t usually see a mirror image of ourselves in conversations, it should also help things feel a little more "normal." To do this, right-click on your video, which should bring up a display menu, where you can click "hide self view."
2. Turn your camera off: Does your camera need to be on for the whole meeting? Flat out avoidance of situations that are anxiety-provoking can be unhelpful in anxiety disorders and OCD, so I’m not suggesting never turning your camera on again. But why not consider creating rest breaks if you’re in a larger group meeting and there’s no need for you to constantly be "presenting"?
3. Set a social limit: This may be easier with friends and family than for work. Still, these calls may make up a significant amount of your Zoom time. I tend to do a maximum of one social call a day so I don’t get totally burned out. Don’t be afraid to be upfront and end calls when you’re starting to feel tired and want to go. Saying you find Zoom a little draining and are going to head off now might feel rude, but I bet you’ll be surprised by how many of your friends feel similarly and are relieved to have you name what they too have been feeling.
Jiand, M. (2020). Video chat is helping us stay employed and connected. But what makes it so tiring - and how can we reduce ‘Zoom fatigue’? Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-…
Vriends N, Meral Y, Bargas-Avila JA, Stadler C, Bögels SM. (2017) How do I look? Self-focused attention during a video chat of women with social anxiety (disorder). Behav Res Ther. 2017;92:77-86