Video Chat Tennis, Anyone? …
Video chat is like conversation ping pong. It takes practice. It is not as simple as it might seem, and isn’t similar to other forms of communications with which we are familiar.
When you chat with a friend on the telephone, you can do other things. You can multi-task! You can prep dinner with the phone cradled against your ear, and still make out the music coming from the CD you have on in the other room. Your friend might be attending to personal hygiene matters—such as clipping their nails, you dirty-minded gutterheads—while sneaking peeks at Jeopardy on the tube, for all you know.
With instant message (IM) you can juggle even more tasks. You can check the weather, catch up on the news, check e-mail, listen to music, and still be able to discuss the unimportance of Janet Jackson’s bejeweled mammary on IM with a friend halfway around the world. Your friend, in turn, might be chatting with their partner, reading an article you just sent about what an asshat our president is, while listening to BBC radio. Whatever your “buddy” may be doing, you can rest assured, they are not sitting there with baited breath waiting for you to reply. They are doing other things. Just. Like. You.
Even in-person conversations can flow uninterrupted while participants do other things. Dining probably being the most popular, I’d assume. One small difference with face-to-face interactions is that—more intimate ones, at least—can often involve silence. Silence is a beautiful thing. Not the silence of sitting in front on the telly, waiting for the commercial break. The silence of sitting in front of a fireplace, or reading in another’s company.
But none of this is preparation for video chat…
With video chat, you are not only on display, but you are limited to where you can be and still remain a viable video chat partner. Plus, it is significantly more difficult to do other things. You can surf, but unless you are looking a photography site, you will be a poor chat partner, and probably rude too. Music is right out. You won’t be able to hear your chatmate, and the video portion devolves into some strange pantomime. Forget silence. Silence on a phone is awkward. In person it can be either beautiful or uncomfortable depending on the company. On video chat, silence is just down-right creepy. And even with quality equipment there are bound to be creepy silent spots in your conversation as you and your chatmates learn to take turns speaking and listening.
Hence the conversation ping pong.
Each chat participant has to find the right balance of speaking and listening, as well as keeping track of whose turn it is to talk. With a one-on-one video chat this is a little easier. You speak, your friend replies. He follows with a question of his own. You reply. [short awkward silence] You think quickly, and ask something of a technical nature regarding the video chat equipment. Something like, “um, the picture is really, um, good on your end. How do I look?” If you’re lucky your friend has some specific things to say to keep the conversation going. At least long enough to justify the bother of conducting a video chat in the first place.
If each camera has two people on it, then you really have to be good. I have found that in two-on-two video chats there are four basic roles for participants to possibly play: The questioner, the answerer, the quiet one, or the fool. I have found I am better at the last two roles, and a little sloppy on the others. I am good at nodding and flashing a thumbs-up, or a big grin, to convey agreement or amusement. I am not so good with asking, or replying to, questions without stepping on another chatter’s turn. My best role is the fool, of course. And I don’t mean amateur video pranks like rabbit ears. I am more of an illusionist, and enjoy floating in and out of the shot from various places on the screen.
The key of course is to do this when you chat partner needs you most… during the creepy silence.