Many people have been working from home for a long time, and are used to doing everything by phone or video chat. The novelty has worn off for them, and they know how to conduct themselves gracefully, more or less. But for the rest of us, the last couple of months of teleconference meetings and online group chats have been, well, an adjustment. Managing group chats and teleconferences is an art, and we are not yet artists.
I’m not a phone or video chat person at the very best of times, and these are not the best of times. Much of that aversion is due to my general preference for written communication, and fierce discomfort with awkward situations.
It turns out some of it is a new understanding of how much the average person depends on nonverbal communication. It’s a cliché at this point, and blind people are frequently taken down a peg via sketchy statistics about exactly how much communication is unspoken, but it’s never been slammed home quite like this for me before. Physical distancing has meant no one can see each other well, or at all, and boy, does that change things.
I don’t know about you folks, but all my phone and video chat meetings have felt infinitely more confusing, and much less satisfying, than in-person gatherings. The flow of conversation is stilted, even when audio quality is high. People interrupt each other constantly, and it’s clearly accidental. Audio and video delays make it harder for people to follow group conversations, since what they hear does not line up with what they see. Larger meetings have lost their effortless interactivity, because people can’t read a room when there’s no room to read. A lot of the visual cues sighted people use to make sense of complex group dynamics have vanished, and they’re all tripping over each other as a result.
Me? I’m just my ordinary clumsy self, no worse off than usual, but I’m suddenly contending with everyone else’s confusion, which makes for awkward times.
And so, once again, I am reminded that I should be a tiny bit kinder to myself when I’m out in the world, mingling with people who have a distinct social advantage. COVID-19 has encouraged me to acknowledge how much effort and skill I bring to all my social interactions, and to admit that, hey, I’m actually pretty good at navigating social situations while missing the majority of cues on which everyone else relies.
All these years, I, as well as sighted people around me, have been hard on me for the cues I miss, the delicate social dynamics I’m oblivious to, the times I interrupt people because it’s apparently not my turn to speak. I have sat through hundreds of fast-moving group conversations, frantically filtering the chaos, opting not to speak at all in many cases to avoid the awkward social dance.
Is someone about to speak? Is it time yet? Are people looking elsewhere? How have people reacted to what I’ve just said? Everyone is quiet. Whyyyyy are they so quiet? Are they processing? Waiting for more? Was it okay? Am I doing okay?
It’s obvious, I know. Of course this was happening because a hell of a lot goes on in silence, where I can’t perceive it, in ways I can’t possibly interpret. Of course I should expect to struggle more and feel clumsier; I’m working with less than half of the information everyone else has! Shouldn’t a person who has been blind for a quarter-century know that without visual input, everyone else is just as clumsy as me?
Well, yes. And I did know it, intellectually. Watching it play out firsthand, however, has been interesting and, dare I say it, validating?
Watching socially adept sighted people make ‘blind person mistakes’–getting confused, losing track, interrupting, addressing people who have already left the conversation, going quiet because it’s all too much–well, it’s been helpful. I take no pleasure in it, and I have no doubt we’ll all find our groove soon. But it’s been an excellent opportunity for me to realize, all the way down, that I’m doing pretty okay out here.
If you’re a fellow blind person who has gotten down on yourself for missing cues and failing to interpret the impossible, I invite you to chill. I also invite you to extend that chill to other blind people as they flounder through this visual world. And let’s be patient with sighted people wrapping their heads around this new way of communicating, just as they have been (mostly) patient with us.
We’re all in this together. We’re all clumsy, and awkward, and out of our depth. Together.