When attending meetings online, the art of remaining silent with ‘videos off’ and ‘mute on’ is the new norm. Learn to draw out the humans from behind their screens
By Manjulaa Shirodkar
COVID 19 hasn’t just impacted our health, taking away a lot of our loved ones and caregivers. It has also slowly and steadily been eating away at life the way the way we knew it once. In our effort to normalize once again, we make it worse. By stepping outdoors, we ensure that Corona often steps back in with us. We can no longer (at least for some time to come) see ourselves without social distancing, masks and sanitizers in our bags and on our person.
In the current scenario, Corona has become the single biggest reason for changed habits, lifestyles, manner of communication and interaction. Online is all ’coz all are online.
Well, much of the studying and working world definitely seems to be making do without meetings in the physical space.
And disturbingly, more and more are very satisfied showing up punctually for their ‘meetings’–online and behind shut windows. Its normal to catch up online with the other being or not being there so long as technology tells us that someone has logged in. Meanwhile, Google Meet and Zoom make the most of it – revenue wise you know.
In keeping with the times, I too was invited to take a guest lecture by a national university recently. And was duly sent an e-invite to talk for two hours to a bunch of post-graduate students who were at liberty to keep their videos off. ‘Tis the way of the new world – adapt to it,’ my mind said. ‘Fret not. You will get used to it,’ soothed my heart.
And I geared up to speak to my laptop screen, to a bunch of boxes (windows if you must) some or all of which would open only if the person on the other side found it worth their while. Unlike pre-Covid, no 20-something was going to walk breezily into the physical classroom, nod their heads or cheerily wish me. Once the class was on and I had been introduced by the moderator, it hit me that I was really on my own – physically and virtually. Sitting in the comfort of my office in the North and reaching out all the way down South!
Would I be able to reach out? Would they trust me enough to stay till the end of the lecture? Would I be able to capture their interest and retain it? After all, I was a ‘virtual stranger’. Quite literally. Meeting them, addressing them, sharing life’s professional experiences with them, I hoped that they would find me and my journey intriguing enough to reveal themselves. But I could Only Hope to draw them out, not force open their window, or make eye contact. They drew the boundaries.
The truth of ‘Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana / Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani’ from our beloved Bhagvad Gita hit me. ‘You have the right to work only but never to its fruits / Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.’ ‘Tathastu’ blessed my mind as if reading my thoughts!
The good part was if I wasn’t good enough, I wouldn’t know – the windows would remain shut. The bad part was that failure to bond in real time would deprive me of connecting with another human being and improving myself. I realised that those who showed up on their computers were interested in self-learning. The bad part was I wouldn’t know if what I shared was being understood or absorbed.
Initially, a few attempts at making the session interactive only drew ‘Y’ if there was clarity in the concept being explained or silence in the chat box if they were bored or uninterested (so I assume). After all, it was the last lecture of their year’s session and they were not obliged to listen or pay attention.
But then, as I continued to persist cheerfully, we moved from ‘Y’ to ‘Clear’ and then to ‘Yes Ma’m’. That’s Progress, I thought to myself – with considerable relief. Some were attentive and one girl in particular decided to brave it out by keeping her video on having switched it on in the 5th minute or so, assured that I wouldn’t be jumping at her!
The moderator meanwhile, helped the session along, occasionally answering my query in the chatbox with a ‘Yes’ and ‘Clear’ hoping others would take the hint. By the middle of the session, another decided to peek out of his window. I smiled and welcomed him. He was kind enough to respond and began nodding sagaciously each time he agreed with something I said. Meanwhile, the girl became brave enough to voice a query. ‘Not bad,’ my mind grinned.
I focused on coercing more windows to open. And slowly they did – one by one by one. Girls were braver than the boys. As more and more opened up, queries and responses flying thick and fast in the chat box and a few unmuting themselves too to talk, I set aside all my worries and apprehensions.
And I realised that what they want from a lecturer is a no judgment space. They will stay with you till the end and share of themselves and raise their doubts if you allow them enough room – figuratively of course. One has to celebrate each one who makes an effort to show up; compliment his/her ideas and acknowledge them. Engaging them and making them understand that each one of them is special is critical.
To my joy and theirs, by the end of it we were sharing not just our queries and doubts, but observations and comments too. They had trusted me enough to step out and join the session openly and from all corners of the country. So even though technology had invaded our lives, in the end we humans won it over.
What's Your Reaction?
Manjulaa Shirodkar (nee Negi) is an established film critic and author, having worked in leading national publications. She is also a Film Selection Committee member for various film festivals.