Gestures to make Zoom calls more bearable

New hand signals to reduce awkwardness and anxiety over video calls.
04 August 2022

Interview with 

Paul Hills & Daniel Richardson, UCL


A handshake drawn on a chalkboard.


Now, to video calls. Something we’ve all got used to and a topic we’ve covered previously on the show. They’re here to stay, so how do we get rid of some of the awkwardness associated with them? Past research has shown that being tethered to our screens during video conferences comes at a cognitive cost to idea creation, because our anxiety of appearing rude by looking away from the screen reduces our capacity to think freely. There are some suggestions that it may be better to turn the cameras off altogether. But what if there was a way to overcome the negative aspects of online interaction and reap the benefits of non-verbal communication so often lost in virtual meetings? That’s the goal of Paul Hills and Daniel Richardson of UCL, who have collaborated on a new study published in PLOS One this week. It outlines the effectiveness of a set of gestures you can use to enhance communication in your very next meeting. James Tytko heard first from Paul how he conceived the idea…

Paul - I've always found meetings very troublesome anyway. And, when we hit Zoom, it just seemed to me to get even worse. And I couldn't believe how quickly we descended into an acceptance of poor meetings. I just thought there's something in here around gestures. You know, we are talking about not being able to read the body language in Zoom. Why don't we make the body language more obvious? Could I take a handful of these signals and just try them out? You probably only need about 10 and they kind of fall into two broad camps. One camp is a gesture that shows recognition - that you are there and you're interested. And that could be the thumbs up or I could put my hand to my heart, and everyone can imagine me doing that, to show you some kindness or empathy if you've shared something with me. The other set really are about passing the conversation. And this hits the other big issue with Zoom calls, which is 'how do I know when it's my go to speak?' And also thought of the analogy of the conversation being like a ball in a team game. So, if you watch a good team with the ball, they'll have their teammates looking to receive a pass. And that's the mindset I would encourage in a meeting. You know that I'm going to want to pass soon, so look to receive. And, if you want to receive, give a big wave, a physical wave above your head, and that means please pass to me. And I'm not allowed to just stop so I would have to say, I now pass to James or I now pass to Daniel. And as teams get used to it, if I pop my hands on top of each other in a kind of banging motion, I'm saying I'm doing a build. I'm actually saying to pass me, because I want to build on your point. And you'll probably like that ,you'll think 'oh, well I will pass to Paul who wants to build'. If I scratch my head in a Laurel and Hardy type fashion, I'm saying 'please pass to me, I've got a question' - you've just said something I didn't understand and it would really help for me to go next so I can ask you my question. And I saw Daniel wave there, so I'm gonna pass to Daniel.

Daniel - I don't think of these as a vocabulary of signs, right? Because when we tell people about these, sometimes they say, 'oh is it a bit like British sign language?' How I think of them really is more like supercharged gestures. And what I do in my scientific world is study how people interact face to face. And we look at eye contact; we look at timing. We look at all of these little things you do like, mm-hmm, <affirmative> Uh-huh. Mm-hmm <affirmative>.We call it back-channeling. All of these things, we don't think of as language, but it's absolutely vital for communication and interaction to happen. And the trouble is, on Zoom, they just don't work.

James - I completely relate to wanting to give that validation through nods and things over Zoom call and I can already feel I'm part of the way there. I make them more exaggerated already, but this just gives you that extra push. My sister has recently been at university. She's done her past couple of years, a lot over zoom. And she speaks of the horror of when the lecturer, or the person in charge of the seminar says, 'right guys, we're gonna go into some breakout rooms to do some further discussion'. And she says, it's always a bit of an awkward experience. How did you go about proving that this would help to improve video calls?

Daniel - So we did a randomized trial where we picked half of our students or gave them a 10 minute training. The other half did not. We measured them, before we measured them after, we compared the sign group with the control group. What we thought was that, okay, maybe this will help with efficiency, right? If all we cared about was how quickly could we reach an agreement? How quickly could we finish this task? The signs might help because there's less sort of awkward silences, less dithering. And we also measure just simply the affiliation. Just how much do I like these guys that I've been working with? How close to them do I feel? Do I feel similar to them? Do we have that social connection? And then also we had a more objective measure. We took the speech of what was said, and we transcribed it all anonymously and we had a computer just code it for positivity. So you can literally count the number of positive and negative words. So did I say 'thank you for that Paul', or just say 'that was great, Paul, thank you so much for that', Right? You can just count the language in a very objective manner. And what we found when we compared the people out of the training with a randomly matched control group is that yes, they were more efficient, they felt like they achieved tasks more quickly. But also they just liked each other more, they liked the experience, they felt closer as a group and, sure enough, they used more positive language and less negative language as a function. These things are just making everything a little easier.

Paul - So I'm just making a gesture to say I'd like to have it passed to me and I've got another perspective or another idea. And I think you can have brilliant discussions, very creative discussions on Zoom. I don't think it has to be a barrier, but you've got to have everyone in the game. Everyone's got to be there. They've got to listen, they've got to want to talk and they've got to know when they can talk. And I think it can be better than face to face. It doesn't have to be worse in any way. And I found it takes a while to implement. You can't just sort of look at the science and think, right, we'll start using them tomorrow. It's a kind of habit changing thing. But if you get a team to commit to using them, and I usually say use them for five meetings and use them well, and then if you don't like them you can drop them. But if they're working for you, then choose to keep them going.



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