The other day, I was on a video call with six friends, talking about how much we hate video calls. My friend Adam mentioned a hack he had come up with to make himself hate them less.
“You know, normally on a video call you’re looking at yourself and you’re looking at the other person. Neither one is great,” he said, thereby inadvertently confessing that he does not enjoy looking at other people’s faces, a unique preference. “So I realized that I can just dim my computer monitor, so instead I’m looking at a blank screen, and the other person can’t tell.”
“Does this mean that when you are talking to me in real life, you’re thinking, ‘Hm, I wish Nalis was a blank screen?’” asked another friend, Nalis.
Adam denied that he thought this, though the rest of us had our suspicions. But the part that everyone did relate to was how distracting and horrible it can be to watch yourself on video calls. Instead of paying attention to what your colleagues are saying, you’re feeling self-conscious about your shiny forehead. In the midst of presenting a new idea, you start wondering if your mouth has a weird upside-down U-shape, like Sam the Eagle.
The fact is that it’s very hard not to look at yourself when your face is right there in front of you, and not necessarily because you’re pleased with what you see. The myth of Narcissus tells us that people who can’t stop staring at themselves are in love with their own image. But what if Narcissus wasn’t vain, just weirded out?
Research suggests that there’s plenty of precedent for feeling camera-shy. One 2011 paper (pdf), published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, explains that humans seem to be universally uncomfortable with looking in the mirror: “When seeing myself in the mirror, I am seeing myself as others see me. I am confronted with the appearance I present to others. In fact, not only am I seeing myself as others sees me, I am also seeing myself as if I was an other, i.e., I am adopting an alienating perspective on myself.” When we regard ourselves this way, we start imagining the judgments that other people would render upon us. This reminds us of the fact that other people must be judging our appearance all the time, perhaps very harshly? And then we get very freaked out.
To wit, the authors of the 2011 paper recall what happened when anthropologist Edmund Carpenter “introduced mirrors to members of an isolated tribe (the Biami) living in the Papuan plateau where neither slate or metallic surfaces exist, and where rivers are murky, not providing clear reflections.”
Did the tribe say, “Gee thanks Carpenter, this is great, mirrors are so handy”? No! The title of Carpenter’s paper is “The Tribal Terror of Self-Awareness.” He writes: “They were paralyzed: after their first startled response – covering their mouths and ducking their heads – they stood transfixed, staring at their images, only their stomach muscles betraying great tension.” We feel very vulnerable when we see ourselves, and it’s the knowledge of our own vulnerability that makes it so hard to look away.
There are a lot of ways to deal with self-consciousness about video chats. You can follow Adam’s advice and stare peacefully into blankness. (Reached for comment, Adam said: “I think the more precise thing I would have said if I knew I was going to be quoted is that sometimes the way we see each other on Zoom calls can be weird and off-putting, not because I personally find the human face bad.”) You can partake in the art of mirror meditation in order to get more comfortable and nonchalant about your own image, as advised by Barnard College associate professor of psychology Tara Well. Or, if you are using Zoom in particular, you can opt for a very simple technical solution.
Simply right-click on the window that has your face on it, and click “Hide Self-View” or “Hide Myself.” The other people on your call can still see you, but you can’t see yourself. This mimics what the world once referred to as an “in-person conversation,” in which you are pretty much always looking at someone else’s face but not your own, unless they are wearing sunglasses so you can see your own little tiny reflection or you are facing a mirror in a restaurant.
A fun story about the latter scenario is that my friends in college used to make fun of me for my “mirror face” whenever they caught me looking at myself. The mirror face is kind of pouty with sucked-in cheeks. It is embarrassing, but it’s also something I cannot help. Which is why I’m thankful that technology makes it possible for me to hide myself from myself and avoid this problem entirely, if only for a while.