Illustration by Su Ji Kang.

Reclaiming My Voice in Our Virtual Reality

On Zoom, if I’m feeling uncomfortable or awkward, I can blame a bad connection and leave the call. In person, I can not vanish into thin air when I want a way out of a conversation.

Mar 28, 2021

I have been training as a ballet dancer since I was four years old and the number one principle my teachers always drilled into my head is that muscle memory is everything. Even when our minds fail us, our bodies are able to complete the steps and movements like reflexes. But when we don’t stretch and practice, the muscles atrophy and start to fail us.
Our body’s muscles are no different than our conversational skills. Human interaction is something that requires practice and regular use and after a year of virtual interactions during the pandemic, it’s easy to lose our ability to talk to other people. I used to be a master of small talk. I had no reservations about talking to random strangers and socializing with groups of people I didn’t know. But after a year of Zoom, I dread any in-person interactions and conversations.
Zoom and text are two dimensional forms of communication and I’m someone who really needs three dimensions. I rely heavily on body language and tone when I communicate with others. Without them, any message that sounds slightly off sends me into a spiral of anxiety and overthinking. My solution for most of the pandemic has been to simply avoid as many interactions as possible, unconsciously stepping away from many important relationships because it takes such a toll on me to sustain them.
It’s not that virtual conversations and interactions can’t work. I spent the first year of my time at university talking to all my friends and loved ones back home over text and Skype and that was sufficient. But I also had in person interactions every day with my social network and classes on campus. Suddenly, every interaction I had was virtual, even with people living 50 yards from me. I spent months craving physical contact and while I do still miss it, I have become bad at it now. On Zoom, if I’m feeling uncomfortable or awkward, I can blame a bad connection and leave the call. In person, I cannot vanish into thin air when I want a way out of a conversation.
What has been most damaged by a year of Zoom is my capacity for spontaneous interactions. With Zoom and text, everything is scheduled, so I have time to mentally prepare or even think of conversation topics ahead of time. When I randomly bump into a friend or professor in the dining hall, I don’t have the time to prepare. I then proceed to ramble or stumble awkwardly through even the most basic conversations, walking away feeling embarrassed and beating myself up for sounding stupid.
In January, NYU Abu Dhabi brought hundreds of students back to campus. I was one of the few students who were here in the fall, when campus felt completely empty. Suddenly, I walked into the usually abandoned dining hall and saw a flood of students freshly released from quarantine. Caught off guard, I felt my anxiety go through the roof. I saw so many new faces and people whom I had not seen in almost a year. Instead of feeling excited to reconnect with my classmates, I felt overwhelming stress on how to start a conversation. I grabbed a take away sandwich and rushed through the dining hall as quickly as possible without being noticed. I would rather change my lunch plans than have a simple conversation with people I had not seen in months.
I hate silence, but I no longer know how to fill it, in person or on Zoom. Small talk feels pointless and exhausting. It’s meant to be a form of casual and trivial conversation, talking about the suffocating Abu Dhabi heat or a new restaurant that opened in the city. Instead, it always comes back to something heavy and serious — mass shootings and racist attacks, presidential elections, Covid-19 deaths or the worldwide communal feelings of burnout and hopelessness.
To make matters worse, it feels impossible to imagine a world where most or all of our interactions are in-person again. The pandemic has come with an overwhelming feeling of permanence and many of us have resigned ourselves to the fact that we will always interact virtually. While Zoom will likely stick around, with the continued success of vaccination programs and other public health initiatives, we also will likely see at least a partial return to in-person life in the near future. That transition, while exciting, will also be incredibly challenging.
I feel like I’m 13 years old again, trying to find my voice while being comfortable with myself and confident in my interactions. The best way I have managed to deal with this is admitting that I feel awkward. I know I have a million things I want to say, so I just need to be comfortable saying them. I also have to remind myself that if I say something embarrassing, I will remember it infinitely longer than the person who heard it. And with time, the conversations will get less uncomfortable and the words will flow more smoothly.
Grace Bechdol is Senior Communications & Social Media Editor. Email her at
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