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How the Zoom era has ruined conversation

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When Rabbi Hannah Goldstein would talk to families before a funeral in pre-pandemic times, she remembers how they would share information about a loved one with her. Everyone tended to "jump in, and someone corrects a detail and then someone adds another piece of it," recalls Goldstein, who works at Temple Sinai in Washington D.C. "It's collaborative. It's like everyone's sort of telling that story together. Oftentimes, I think when you're remembering a loved one, it's like you're telling these beloved stories that everyone's told a million times, so everyone has their little detail that they love to share."

That style of conversation — a freewheeling ebb and flow where people interrupt one another — is much harder to pull off in the video communications necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. Suppose someone is speaking and another person, eager to express agreement, chimes in at the end of their sentence. Over Zoom, this tends to derail the discussion or narrative: Rather than a relatively smooth interruption, as might happen face-to-face, the attempt to talk creates moments of "Oh, no, you go ahead." Awkward lengthy pauses are common. Then there's the turn-waiting, known from everyone's school days as raising your hand.

More than two decades ago, the noted sociolinguist Deborah Tannen coined the term "cooperative overlap" to differentiate people who spoke over others as a way to show they were engaged and interested — cooperating, as it were — from those with the intention of interrupting. A Georgetown University professor and author of a number of books — most recently, "Finding My Father: His Century-Long Journey From World War I Warsaw and My Quest to Follow" — Tannen describes cooperative overlap as "talking along to show enthusiasm, as a way of encouraging the other person to keep speaking rather than cutting them off."

Her initial research focused on the difference between Jewish New Yorkers with an Eastern European background (who were inclined toward talking over) and Californians of a Christian background (who tended to feel interrupted). But it's a phenomenon that varies throughout the world, with different groups encouraging or tolerating divergent levels of interrupting.

"There's a lot of cultural difference with respect to how much overlap can be considered cooperative," Tannen told me. It's less important to Tannen to determine which groups or individuals are more prone toward overlap than it is to present the notion that, just because someone speaks over another, it doesn't mean they're trying to wrest control of a conversation.

Takae Tsujioka, a professor of Japanese language at George Washington University, says Japanese listeners use back channels — interjected responses to a speaker — about twice as often as English listeners. During a speaker's grammatical pauses, which happen multiple times per sentence, a listener will say "hai"; they might also do so upon hearing something impactful.

It's totally different, and much more awkward, to pepper in "hai" on a video call, says Tsujioka: "If it's just two people, I would say we still do it very much. But if it's more than three people, your system doesn't catch up and the conversation gets cut off, so people tend to refrain." She saw a business etiquette website advising people to use "hai" far less during virtual meetings than they would if they were speaking in-person.

The mute button is arguably a major barrier to these kinds of minimal interruptions in any cultural context — since the bar to unmute oneself is much higher than just opening your mouth in person. An "oh, yeah, totally" suddenly doesn't seem worthwhile to express, or might be replaced with an emoji or a comment in the chat window.

And yet, for all the ways Zoom can frustrate conversational overlap, there are some advantages. Tsujioka says she has observed that her online classes have actually learned how to use "hai" better "because it's so accentuated when I do it" on a virtual platform.

Meanwhile, for people who don't particularly like the idea of fighting to be heard, the Zoom era — which creates more orderly queues for commenting during conversation — has been a boon. When the conversation is virtual, says Goldstein, "you hear from people that aren't always the best at getting their voices in there." Tannen is on sabbatical but says that other professors have observed similar dynamics in their virtual classrooms: "Sometimes the quieter students who have more trouble getting the floor in class discussions actually are finding it more comfortable to speak."

The key, in many cases, could be the "raise hand" feature, which allows participants to subtly join a wait list of speakers. Of course, the feature is based on actually raising one's hand in real life to indicate you've got something to say, but doing it virtually sidesteps what can be a delicate dance in person. "If I raise my hand too quickly, I'm stepping on somebody else's toes," says Tannen. "But if I wait too long, somebody else will take the spot before me." That calculation is a nonfactor virtually.

Goldstein now finds herself stepping in far more frequently to facilitate virtual conversations and religious classes in ways she never had to when they happened in the flesh. "It's just this reminder of the fact that we're doing all of this stuff in a totally unnatural way," she told me. The conversations are "definitely impacted by the limitations of technology and not being able to tell a story in the way you normally would."

But if nothing else, the Zoom era may have been an opportunity for us all to discover just how much conversational styles differ. Whether it's sussing out how to accommodate overlap virtually or bring non-overlappers into chaotic in-person chats, allowing varied conversational styles enriches discussions and broadens perspectives. It may also leave participants feeling better. "A perfectly tuned conversation is a vision of sanity," Tannen says. "It's a reassurance that you're a right sort of person and the world is a right sort of place."

Rachel Kurzius is a host and reporter at WAMU 88.5 in D.C. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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