There’s a decent chance that, in the last year, you’ve had to hang with folks virtually. Perhaps it was a business meeting, a class, or your family’s holiday shindig. As a writer, you might have done a book launch, a conference, a poetry slam, or a reading. We’re all communicating in new ways and my gosh, has it been a learning curve.
We’re writers, though, and research is what we do. So when I agreed to participate in a Zoom conference earlier this year, I did a dive into virtual best practices. What’s expected of folks in a virtual environment, I wondered? What would help me communicate my ideas effectively and clearly? Where should I put the camera? And what the heck am I supposed to do with my hands?
I read about a dozen guides. The rules were clear: Look at the camera. Appear relaxed and at ease. Speak at an even pace. Don’t fidget. Don’t make weird noises. Engage with people like they’re in the room with you. Stage your home. Turn on a bright light. Stay focused. Don’t stray off topic. Don’t become distracted. Look sharp. Don’t use verbal fillers like “um” or “ah”.
Appear virtually perfect.
The more I read, the more I realized these weren’t lists of best practices. They were descriptors of the appearance of neurotypicality and abled-ness. They were lists of masking techniques.
Masking is something many disabled people have experience with. It’s where we downplay, disguise or hide appearances and behaviours associated with our disability to make the ableds comfortable. (And on Zoom, we have to make them comfortable while looking like the least fun Brady Bunch intro.)
If I google symptoms associated with my diagnosis, it reads like a what-not-to-do-on-Zoom hit list: I fidget. I shift around. I don’t always look right at folks. I can’t promise my home or my hair or my clothes will pass muster. My tone is too intense, I talk too fast or too slow, I miss cues that everyone else seems to get. I have difficulty concentrating, especially if there’s too much stimuli—and trust me, a Zoom class with a dozen participants is way too much stimuli. I shake if I get too keyed up. My voice skips. Sometimes I can’t talk at all. If this all hits at once, I might end up staring distractedly at my lap, a comforting object, or even my phone. I might even have to leave the chat.
And knowing all this? It just increases my anxiety pre-meeting/class/panel and my exhaustion afterward. So what do I do? How can I be better at Zooming? What do I change?
Nothing. That’s my solution. I change nothing. I fidget. I switch chairs. I get worked up and blush and stumble and cringe and keep on. If someone wants me on a panel, they get me. If someone wants me at a meeting, they get me.
It’s started me thinking, though. How many of these same rules have I seen on job interview advice lists? On live presentation how-tos or record-your-best-voicemail articles? These same standards are repeated everywhere and the message is the same: cut out bits of yourself to bring to work or school or your judgy uncle’s house. Leave the rest at home. Leave behind the parts that mark you as supposedly less-than-perfect. Leave behind the parts that make people uncomfortable, because they’re unexpected or different or tied to disabilities we’re not supposed to be okay having.
I would love to say that, when this revelation hit me, I stopped it all. Stopped curbing my steam-train brain, stopped biting my lip to keep from mimicking ambient sounds, stopped staring straight at the camera (because seeing me staring back at me is singularly disturbing). I would love to say that, but I’ve spent 44 years lip biting and train-stopping. These skills helped me survive school and home, find work, and be taken (occasionally) seriously by people like doctors and mortgage brokers. If I toss all that off, I’m right back to being the weird kid who thought everyone practiced facial expressions.
So yeah, I still mask. I still wear myself out donning the hat that says NORMAL in big letters. But I do it less, and I’ve started consciously choosing to do so in virtual spaces. Like any other skill, being me takes practice. And maybe, with practice, I won’t care if I’m perceived as perfect. I’ll be perfectly happy being me.
H. E. Casson (they/them) is a queer poet and performer whose words have been shared by Cast of Wonders, Lunate, The Quilliad, Serotonin, and Taco Bell Quarterly—among others. They are a Best of the Net nominee and have been selected for the Best Indie Speculative Fiction 2020 anthology. H. E.’s voice can be heard in the Moonbase Theta Out and Disenchanted podcasts. You can visit them and see more of their work at hecasson.com and as @hecasson on Twitter.