While video calling is great in many ways (see Top 10 Reasons To Use Videoconferencing), it’s not a replacement for face-to-face meetings. First impressions do count, and if you aren’t careful, you could be headed for a video calling wipeout. Just look at the effect of video (i.e., television) on Nixon’s bid for the presidency in 1960. It cost Nixon the election because no one at that time understood the visual impact of the then new television medium, and subsequently he refused to appear on televised debates (Webley 2010).
So what are some issues to beware of in video conferencing? As I mentioned earlier, first impressions count, and unfortunately, delays and distortions caused by technology glitches are often perceived as flaws in the person rather than flaws in the technology (Chen 2003). Although video conferencing technology has vastly improved over the last 50 years, network delays and video distortion are still facts of life and need to be anticipated.
Previous research clearly established the importance of audio over video in communication. Audio delays in particular can be the kiss of death when trying to make a good impression. For example, Kitawaki, et al., (1993) found that delayed audio can cause a speaker to be viewed as “slow” or, as the London Economist (1969) so delicately put it in the days before political correctness, it’s like “talking to a mentally defective foreigner” (Egido 1988, p. 15). Ruhleder & Jordan (2001) explored a host of misinterpretations caused by delays in the split second timing needed to smoothly take turns during a discussion and repair mishearings. These unintentional pauses can, at worst, lead to people being perceived as incompetent, socially awkward, or having a negative attitude. At best, they’re a nuisance to be patiently borne. This is not such a big deal when working with people you know, but it slows down the already difficult process of building trust with people across distances. Finally, Isaacs & Tang (1993) found that more delay meant fewer interruptions and fewer speaker changes, which meant fewer interactions, and thus, lower-quality collaboration.
Furthermore, while people are more willing to tolerate video problems than audio problems, you shouldn’t push your luck. Even though we like to make fun of bad movie dubbings, research tells us that out-of-sync lips and audio makes you come across as being less trustworthy and less believable (Reeves and Nass 1996).
There is also the problem of eye contact which is often difficult to achieve in video conferencing due to limitations in webcam positioning. Huang, et al., (2002) found that whether the camera angle makes you look taller or shorter can also impact your power and influence in negotiations.
Lastly, one study even found that some people got cases of “video aversion” or “video anxiety” when they saw themselves in a video conference. It caused high negative feelings which were sometimes transferred to the service providing the conference (Wegge 2006). It’s probably safe to assume that video conferencing won’t be on their list of things-to-do in the near future.
In spite of these nontrivial issues, video conferencing is a growing trend. Just as television is an important media tool even though Nixon crashed and burned on his first televised debate, video conferencing technology is also becoming an indispensable tool in today’s global economy.
3. Huang, W., Olsen, J.S. & Olsen, G.M. 2002. Camera angle affects dominance in video-mediated communication. In Proc. of CHI’02 extended abstracts on Human Factors in computing systems, 716-717, NY: ACM Press.
4. Kitawaki, K., Kurita, T. & Itoh, K. 1991. Effects of Delay on Speech Quality. NTT Review 3: 88-94.
7. Tang, J., & Isaacs, E. (1993). Why do users like video? Studies of multimedia-supported collaboration. Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 1, 163-193.
9. Wegge, J. 2006. Communication via Videoconference: Emotional and Cognitive Consequences of Affective Personality Dispositions, Seeing One’s Own Picture, and Disturbing Events. Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 21, No. 3: 273-318.