Can Our Metaphors Change The Way We Meet Online?

When you meet with others online, everyone brings part of the meeting room with them. If somebody joins a video call from what looks like a dingy broom cupboard, or what sounds like a busy shopping mall, it affects the quality of the experience for everyone.

Most people find it more difficult to stay engaged in the conversation when they can’t see or hear everybody easily. That’s partly because of the physical strain involved, and partly because of the psychological implications: most people find it more difficult to feel psychologically safe in a conversation when they can’t see or hear the other people involved.

Perhaps even more importantly, everyone brings their own preconceptions with them, too. If they think that this online meeting will be a waste of time, full of background noise and other technical hassles, that’s pretty likely to negatively affect the meeting.

But that’s not how everyone feels about online meetings. For example, Chad Nielsen commented on a recent blog post of mine, saying “When I am online in Zoom it still seems F2F (face-to-face) or IP (in person) to me.” He’s so used to meeting people over Zoom that for him, Zoom calls are like face-to-face conversations. His personal metaphor for a Zoom call is a face-to-face conversation.

I’ve noticed that as people become more comfortable with connecting online, the metaphors they use to describe their experience change – typically becoming more like Chad’s. It no longer feels unnatural or unusual to be speaking face-to-face with a colleague on the other side of the world. Phrases like “Let’s jump on Zoom” or “Shall we have a virtual coffee?” don’t need lots of explanation: that’s just how we do stuff together.

In this context, colleagues gravitate to naturalistic metaphors that fit their experience, and move away from the more “formal” ones that don’t. For example, “video call” is noticeably preferred to the corporate “video conference“. “Online” or “virtual” is preferred to “remote”. “Call”, “discussion” or “conversation” tend to be preferred to “meeting”.

At the risk of disappearing into linguistic controversy, I think it’s pretty self-evident that the metaphors we use not only describe our thoughts, but also influence them. Our shared language/jargon/metaphors create shared meaning and lead to shared experiences, which in turn influence our thoughts and our language.

Once we think of virtual conversations as being natural and normal, we have more of them. And with practice, we’re likely to get better at them.

So I’m wondering, what would happen if people in organisations used more inviting, natural and inclusive metaphors around virtual meetings? And what would need to happen for that to happen?

  • What do you think? Please comment below. And many thanks to Chad for his inspirational comment!

6 thoughts on “Can Our Metaphors Change The Way We Meet Online?”

  1. My fav metaphor for an online meeting is a garden!
    I put flowers around our shared gdoc/whiteboard, and as a warmuo invite people to add something to the garden to make it great: a bbq, a dog, a tree, a hammock, warm sunshine …
    Then we hold our meeting in the garden. Ahhh.

    Another metaphor for meetings with confidential or personal stories shared, is the “Vegas Rules” opt-in working agreement: whatever happens in ‘Vegas’ stays in ‘Vegas’. It keeps it light but very clear. By asking for visible assent, everyone sees everyone else agree, and the room becomes a “circle”, rather than a “podium” for the host. (If not all agree, a short conversation to adjust the agreement usually gets everyone to thumbs-up in a minute or two). That, too, stengthens the “circle” aspect: we make room for you all to say what matters to you – really. 🙂

  2. Dear Judy, I agree with you. Last school year I was running an online discussion for young students about to take their final exams. One of them showed up after just falling out of bed. She’d made no effort at all to even tidy her hair. This certainly brought down the level of our conversation. The other 4 in the exchange (SKYPE) were perfect.

    Thanks again, Nigel A JAMES – Vienna

  3. Video calls, 1-on-1 or group ones, are like beer – an acquired taste! 🙂 You need to taste it several times, and you need to experience nice and interesting effects several times, before you start to like it.

    As a kid I was also terrified of phone calls, but that’s another story… 😉

  4. Pingback: Meeting In A Circle, Online - Judy Rees

  5. Judy, thank you for posting this insightful observation. I have struggled with my client to differentiate various virtual events and avoid using ‘webinar’ as a one-stop term to describe everything virtual that includes a PPT deck and a live voice (and webcam, when we are lucky). Shifting to using the term VILT or Virtual Instructor-Led Training to differentiate a facilitated and engaging virtual learning experience is not easy, but at least begins to raise the expectations of participants. Language is important. Thanks again. Richard.

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