Good times to turn off your camera

I am enjoying Talent by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross. The book is about identifying talent but it’s also a fun self-reflection exercise.

A section I particularly liked was “When We Avoid Face-to-Face Contact.” TC and DG point out that in many areas of life, we conduct eye-contactless communication to encourage people to open up and enhance information flow. Some examples are Catholic confessionals, laying on the couch therapy sessions, and walk-and-talk meetings.

The advantages of these “eye contact off” physical meetings can carry over to “camera off” virtual meetings. Here are two other scenarios when a camera-off call might be the right move.

1) Getting inside someone’s head

Some sorts of collaboration require maximum “communicative empathy.” Though the added information from the visual elements of video calls are useful (especially for interviews/talent evaluation), these elements can also distract. There are moments when we really need to focus solely on the substance of what someone is saying. In these situations, going camera-off can encourage you to shift from looking at a person to “looking with them.”

This brought to mind a point New Yorker profiler Larissa MacFarquhar made while discussing why she avoids describing what people look like in her profiles:

But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.

And what sometimes — though not always — I’m trying to do is give the reader a sense of what it’s like to be inside that person’s head. And the more that you describe the physical person, the physical circumstances of the person, anything that involves being outside the person, looking at them, the less you cultivate that sense of intimacy that comes from being inside their head and looking out through their eyes.

A camera-off call gets you inside a person’s head and for certain sorts of dense collaboration, this can be useful. But it is more of an open question for me if this is useful for talent evaluation.

Blind auditions. Blind resume reviews. The new wave of entry level job interviews for consulting and finance where students record answers on camera. These are all sort of camera-off evaluations (with noted pros and cons). Maybe a hybrid model is valuable where it is possible to collect both points of view.

2) Limited bandwidth

Another reason a camera-off call can be good is if you are talking to people in countries with limited bandwidth.

I have a remote job where many of my colleagues sit in West Africa (I’m in on the Eastern Seaboard). Back when I started it confused me that almost without exception my coworkers in West Africa take zoom calls camera-off and coworkers in Europe and North America take them camera-on. Camera-on felt so much more collaborative and helped build trust in a remote environment.

A few months into the job, a colleague who works in Dakar asked everyone to turn their cameras off during a call to minimize lag due to limited bandwidth. I realized that the norm of having your camera off was a practical consideration, not a social one. I had been decreasing the quality of many calls though my uniformed attempt to increase the quality.

I took this as a good reminder to always assume best intentions and never assume you have all the context!

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