The global COVID-19 pandemic situation has often been compared to the SARS epidemic in 2003 – probably the last time in recent memory where a contagious respiratory coronavirus caused the shutdown of schools and badly affected the economy. The comparisons are inevitable, and yet less than 20 years on, one big difference is that we are now more digitally connected than ever.
In 2003, mobile phones didn’t even have colour; it could take days to download a full video at dial-up internet speeds; and social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram didn’t exist.
The landscape of digital technology has flourished much since then, opening up previously unimaginable realms of virtual communication. Today, video calls are the norm, and we can substitute most forms of human interaction with a smartphone and an internet connection.
However, upkeeping our social lives and relationships in this period of social distancing and reduced physical meetups has not been easy.
For all its benefits, many of us are still mainly using technology to further build upon the connections that we already have, rather than making new friends online. We also miss the days of freely meeting up with friends and family.
How then do we navigate this new norm of virtual communities and relationships?
Recognise the limitations
We’ve all been there: You’re in a Zoom call with a group of friends. You chip in with a hilarious joke… and you’re met with complete silence. It’s not that you aren’t funny, but that everyone else’s mics are muted.
Or you start to say something, but someone else starts speaking at the same time. Again, awkward silence ensues as you both don’t quite know who should proceed.
Video calls are meant to help us connect and communicate, but often, they end up being extremely tiring – even though we’ve never even left our room.
Virtual interactions can be tiresome and awkward at times, and it’s important to be aware of its limitations so that we can manage our own interactions and expectations.
On a virtual platform, the social cues that guide face to face interactions are nearly impossible to pick up or convey. Subtle actions that help us to communicate better with others like making eye contact, using hand gestures and body language are no longer there, and all we have is just a blurry image and choppy audio – not exactly the most conducive environment for relationship building. Hence, video calls can often be stilted, because much more effort is needed to keep the conversations flowing naturally.
And let’s not forget the self-consciousness of being in front of the camera. Every time I log in for a video call, I can’t help but glance at my own video profile every now and then, wondering if my hair looks weird today, or if that blemish is obvious on screen. The feeling of constantly being in the spotlight and open to scrutiny definitely takes its toll, even if we don’t realise it.
While these things may make virtual interactions difficult, the fact that we can see and hear one another without being able to meet in person is something to be thankful for.
Used prudently, they can be useful tools in building relationships, especially during this socially-distanced period we are living in.
Work with the advantages
Recognising technology’s limitations then allows us to work around them, and harness the considerable advantages that digital tools provide.
One way to do so is by managing your virtual timetable as much as possible to ensure that you don’t spend too many hours a day in online meetings.
As working from home tends to blur the lines between work and play, it can be helpful to give ourselves mental breaks throughout the day by deliberately scheduling them in. Take time out from virtual interactions to talk to a family member or housemate in person, or do a hands-on activity like painting or cooking.
Probably the greatest advantage that virtual interactions provides is convenience. Everyone is literally a few clicks away, travel time is eliminated, and that makes finding a suitable time to catch up that much easier.
Before the Circuit Breaker period, I used to meet up with a group of friends once every 3 to 4 months, due to busyness and differing schedules. In the span of just 2 months spent staying home, however, we did at least 3 or 4 video call hangouts to chat, have meals and play games together. It was definitely much easier to find a common time to meet online, and we found that not being able to meet up in person actually fuelled our desire to catch up with each other more!
Another benefit of digital communications is that it opens up so many new opportunities for us. There are myriads of both free and paid courses and workshops available online; one can learn anything from the right way to cook an onsen egg to how to code a website.
Many musicians have also been streaming live online concerts and recordings, and even museums and libraries all around the world have made their content freely accessible. We can participate in all these virtual activities with our friends and family, from the comfort of our home.
Explore the possibilities
Indeed, the possibilities of virtual interactions are almost endless. One really encouraging trend that has emerged from this pandemic is how people have found novel ways to connect and show love to one another, despite not being able to meet.
There are the gifts of food deliveries that many have been sending to friends and loved ones, ranging from bubble tea, desserts, to full-on meals for the entire family. As someone whose love language is receiving gifts, it was truly a joy to hear that doorbell ring when I least expected it, to find a surprise delivery waiting for me. Food delivery services have been around for years, but not many of us have thought of using it as a way to bless others until now.
This period has also forced us to be creative in our online interactions. Cue the rise of online games and activities, often played via video conferencing platforms or apps – from drawing games to spy games, from get-to-know-you games to karaoke sessions, the list goes on.
It’s not a common occurrence (for me, at least) for a group of 20 friends to gather to play games in real life, but I’ll never forget the numerous laughs I had with my friends online – chuckling over the funniest drawings, trying to scrutinise people’s poker faces, and finding out the most unexpected facts about each other.
Even birthday celebrations have taken on a new and innovative twist. Over the course of the past few months, I’ve attended several virtual birthday parties featuring surprise food deliveries, e-cards, customised virtual party backgrounds, and even party games! It’s been very heartening to see friends and family rallying together in ingenious ways to make their loved ones feel loved.
To me, this shows our resilience and tenacity in adapting to the changing circumstances; and our innate desire for human connection.
We are privileged to live in a time where there are many avenues and platforms available to us. Find new ways to connect, explore the possibilities, and have fun with it!
We may have come a long way in terms of technology and virtual interactions, but there is still some way to go before they can truly replace face-to-face interactions.
Perhaps what the pandemic has taught us is to appreciate the times we can meet in person, while at the same time, continue leveraging on technology to stay connected with friends and family.
© 2020 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
Cheryl Lee is a designer and creative by trade who is no stranger to working from home, and has experienced both the ups and downs of using technology to connect with others, especially during this pandemic season. In her spare time, she loves creating designs that encourage and delight, and you can say a big virtual "hello!" at @curiouslah on Instagram!
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