“Just so you know, if you’ve got any background sounds we can hear, I will mute you. The same goes for distracting movement; I’ll ‘mute’ your video,” I say. I strive to be a role model of Zoom decorum. I have set up my office space to maximize my streaming presence. I burn a lavender candle to my right (off-camera) for mood enhancement; I have lights that bounce off the ceiling to create ambient light, and my laptop is set up so that a viewer will see me from mid-chest up. I have the proper ratio of headspace above me. I am framed, OK? I have a B.A. in film and theater from UC Irvine, so I know what I’m doing regarding lighting and set decoration.
Thanks to the pandemic, you’d think everyone would have figured these things out by now. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case. I’ve been coaching writers online for three years. This experience led me to design Three Zoom Commandments, the breaking of which can get you muted, at least in my meetings. These infractions can be endearing in less formalized settings like family calls. “Grandpa! We can only see your teeth; can you turn your computer so the light shines on your face?”
I try to share my experience when it’s warranted. For example, while taking an online seminar, I texted the leader to tell her that she looked like a bobblehead with no body. She was wearing black against a completely black background. Her name covered her chin. It was hard to believe that no one else had spoken to her about her on-camera presence, which reminded me of that 80s show “Max Headroom.” (Look it up.) I gave her the remedies: put a light source on the floor behind her so she had subtle backlighting; sit on some pillows; re-aim her camera; have some lights in front of her, etc. Voilá! The following week, she appeared as the professional she really is. Frame yourself properly. If your chin looks like it’s on a window sill, it’s distracting. Do these folks not understand that they can adjust their camera angles to center their mugs in their square?
In this spirit, here are my Three Commandments of the Zoom-iverse:
Thou Shalt Not Amble — Please don’t walk around with your device: it makes me want to heave. Really. That also applies to rocking back and forth in a chair or bouncing. Any activity that would disrupt meetings in real life (IRL) applies to Zoom … times ten. On-camera movement in your own little square is a more intense experience than you might think. That also applies to using moving backgrounds. They can be pretty and subtle, like the gently rolling surf of a tropical beach. However, I’ll never forget one participant having a live video of a roller coaster as their background. I ordinarily love roller coasters, but forcing other participants to run and get barf bags is a big no-no. Speaking of unwanted movement on camera, “pulling” a Toobin is totally verboten. (Look that up, too.)
Thou Shalt Not Blather — Whether online or in person, so many people blather these days! They can’t seem to keep track of how long they’ve talked or how many times they made the same point, over and over and over … like I just did. (Uh-oh.) If you attempt to talk over a blatherer, which many people try to do, no one will be heard. Seriously. I assume if you’re talking, you do want to be heard, right? In some groups, you may need to be proactive and say, “I’d like the floor for the next few minutes without interruption.” Learning to say what you need out loud could be a source of growth for some of us.
Thou Shalt Not Chew Anything — I have a personal rule that I won’t eat on-camera unless I’ve given someone advance notice or it’s one-on-one with a close friend. As a teacher, never! As a student, occasionally and if so, I turn off my video so people don’t have to watch me masticate. I can’t stand gum chewing IRL, a habit that normal people often tolerate. Apparently, I’m not that normal: I find gum chewing extremely distracting. If you’re attempting to focus on what someone else is saying, but your eyes drift to the mechanical, mouth-open, cow-like motions coming from another’s Zoom square, it will upstage what other people are saying. I hate it, OK? And, if I hate it, others also despise the practice but aren’t able to tell you to nip it.
Here are a couple of miscellaneous peeves:
• Don’t let Fluffy or Fido saunter across your screen unless, of course, everyone is introducing their fur babies. Every actor in the world knows that animals and kids will upstage anything else that’s happening.
• Please don’t sleep on camera. You wouldn’t nap during an in-person meeting, so don’t do it on Zoom.
If I seem a tad too militant about Zoom-iquette, so be it. Zoom is here to stay, folks; it’s even become a verb.
2023 marks the 30th year that Ellen Snortland has written this column. She also teaches creative writing online and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Her award-winning film “Beauty Bites Beast” is available for download or streaming at vimeo.com/ondemand/beautybitesbeast.