Early in the pandemic, I used Zoom and other video-chat platforms like never before. For me it was mostly social, not work-related: a way to see and stay in touch with family and friends when I wasn’t meeting them in person. I soon noticed ways the technology compromised communication.
Take back-channelling. This is when we say things like mm, yeah, and whoa to convey, minimally, that we’re listening, that we agree, that the speaker should continue their conversational turn, and so on. Back-channelling didn’t work well in some apps, because the timing was slightly out of sync or because the sounds briefly dominated the audio, interfering with the speaker instead of supporting them.
Such problems are not new, but they are newly prevalent. How to tackle them depends on the context: the technology, the conversation type, the people involved, and so on. One thing I did was reduce my back-channelling noises; in their place I nodded more often and more visibly and used more facial expressions.
I also made visual reaction cards based on popular emoji:
These I would flip up sporadically to convey, silently, a certain reaction. The cards’ physical nature (they’re about 10 × 10 cm) also allowed me to use them in creative ways, playing on the control I could exert over their display: timing, size and position/movement on screen, and so on.
They were especially useful in group video chats, where the numbers increased the technological problems. A well-timed, well-chosen emoji leavened the chaos. If I were to make them again, I would replace a few: some I seldom used (😍😆🙃), and others I missed (😑😭🙈😶😱‼️). Though the more cards, the more fiddling to find the one you need.
Emoji already appear in the physical world, as designs on stickers, plush toys, etc. But in their paralinguistic or quasi-gestural function they’re mainly restricted to text-based digital communication, as in messaging apps and social media. Using emoji cards in screen-mediated face-to-face chat blurred a line that was already blurry.
Love the emojis Stan! You could market these, I’d buy them for myself and for Xmas gifts. Would use them at team meetings and never again have to try and get a word in edgewise…
Thank you! They do reduce the pressure of online participation. I imagine that something similar has already been produced commercially (made of plastic, no doubt); I didn’t care to check. But I can recommend them to anyone as a small DIY project.
I would be worried about holding up the wrong card, or holding up the right card just a little bit too late!
I used them only in friendly, informal groups, so I wasn’t worried about getting them mixed up. Sometimes I messed up the timing, though!
Thank you for the term /back-channelling/ — I needed it since it must refer also to the /um/, /ah/, /uh/, which the Toastmasters org condemn — though for them it is the fault without a name.
I’d long thought of /um’s/, /ah’s/, /uh’s/ as a part of normal discourse, since everybody does them, including the best. I’d extend even unto /y’know/, if not excessive. A measure of /y’know/ is vital. Linguists may have examples in translation from other languages, too.
Still, /back-channelling/ is a long word for so brief a deviation.
You’re welcome, Roger. I like the term, as I find it memorable and descriptive. ‘Um’s and ‘uh’s get a lot of flak, but they’re normal and ubiquitous in everyday speech, as you say. It may be that the longer or more word-like ones, the ‘y’know’s and ‘like’s, are more noticeable and therefore more scorned, but that’s just a guess. I might find some answers (and crosslinguistic examples) in Michael Erard’s book on the subject, Um…, which I ordered recently.
I’m not an emoji person myself, but it sounds like a reasonable approach. I found myself making more movements, such as nodding or shaking of the head, to give some feedback. I also tried to avoid any extra sounds when I couldn’t have it on mute.
I was also in Toastmasters, and there was an emphasis on removing ums and ahs from speech. However, I understood that it applied more specifically to ‘public speaking’, rather than conversation, and so it wouldn’t apply to Stan’s back-channelling. Personally, I find that a few ums and ahs don’t necessarily bother me in public speakers, provided all the other elements of the speech are working, eg making sense, using gestures, vocal variety, addressing the audience, and so on. I think I notice ums and ahs more on radio where there are fewer other cues. Also, perhaps if I don’t like the speaker or their content, I may focus on their ums and ahs.
By the way, is there an upside-down face emoji, as in your photo?
Those are good points about radio and attitudes to the speaker. I’m definitely more forgiving of speech ‘tics’ when I like the speaker or agree with what they’re saying, and vice versa.
There is indeed an upside-down face emoji: 🙃. Though I included it in my list of seldom-used cards, I use it quite regularly in messaging and the like. Emojipedia’s entry shows its design on different platforms, while lexicographer Jane Solomon discusses its diverse uses and ambivalence on her
Lexical Items blog.