Zoomed out: how can we politely tell people we’d rather not chat?

Video fatigue is real, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, and now is a good time to be candid about emotional needs

Like everyone right now, I’m video-chatting a lot – Skype drinks, family dinners over FaceTime, catch-ups with groups of friends on Zoom. I’m pretty extroverted and I love that we can all stay connected but I’m finding it tricky to say no when I don’t want to spend another evening in front of the screen. Specifically, I have one group of friends who have now decided that we will catch up for drinks and a video chat every Tuesday evening.

I don’t really know how this happened and feel like a total Grinch for saying this, but I don’t want to Skype them that often. We would never have caught up that regularly in pre-corona life. But there’s no excuse to get out of it, it’s not like you can say “I’m busy” – because what else is anyone doing at the moment? My housemate has a similar problem. His mum calls him everyday for long and involved chats and pre-corona he could tell her that he was busy or couldn’t take the call at the office, and get out of some of the calls, or at least keep them short, but now he’s stuck. What is the protocol for managing social lives in these Covid times? How can we politely tell people we’d just rather not chat all the time without the usual excuses?

Back when I first started speaking at public events, I discovered a kind of fatigue I had never encountered before. I would lie down on a hotel bed with my shoes and socks still on to “rest my eyes” and sink straight down into a sleep several miles beneath the Earth’s surface.

A therapist friend explained to me that for some people, being watched by multiple eyes for long stretches of time can just wring out your adrenal system. It’s too many points of view to inhabit at once; you look through your own eyes and the eyes of the people watching you. You see yourself watching and being watched. All this observing crowds out your ability to simply think, or be.

Zoom made this experience literal. Most of our days now are spent watching ourselves being watched, bent like a digital Narcissus over thumbnails of our own faces, learning just how painfully oxymoronic it is to try to appear unobserved. That self-consciousness is exhausting. I miss the way that in a great class or conversation I would forget where I was and start to feel like a pair of eyes and a brain floating in space, losing track – in a way the web camera would never permit – of myself.

You’re not alone in feeling flatlined by all these video chats, or in wanting some time away from the screen and from other people. Video fatigue is real. And crisis fatigue is real. There are only so many more rounds of “isn’t it crazy?” and “what are you watching?” we can all do.

As for what you can do about it: now is a good time to be candid about having emotional needs, because almost everybody on the planet is going through some kind of suffering for the same reason. It will take an all-time historical low of imaginative effort from your loved ones to understand that you might need to take care of yourself. “I love seeing you guys but I need a little me-time off screens tonight” is a sentence almost everyone can empathise with right now. Even the neediest mother can see the reasoning in “I love you but I need to read a book alone for a while now”.

Practise being able to say what you need out loud, without excuses or cover stories. It’ll set up good habits for the post-pandemic world. Communicating your needs to other people might give them permission to feel theirs, too, and who knows — maybe they’ll be relieved.

It isn’t impolite to need time to yourself and it isn’t impolite to take care of yourself in a pandemic. Carve time for yourself away from the experience of being watched. Zoom will be waiting when you next want to log in.

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