The Virtual Pandemic: Webinars go wild. You go wonkers

For six months, I studiously resisted writing about this painful pandemic. I steadily avoided the typical tirades and repetitive realities of COVID-19. I eschewed the temptations to wax woefully and bemoan banally on the mostly boring virus. My success was stymied when my E*D*I*T*O*R* stormed in and told me to write about you-know-what. Commanded me would be more accurate.

A simple declaration of a State of Disaster and in waltzed a wealth of webinars. Oh, dear. This is the virtual pandemic with real consequences. The end of the real world. No more tea and biscuits in real hotels and overused boardrooms. No more ‘body breaks’. No more hugging a friend or actively ignoring an enemy.

The Real World

In real meetings, we have multiple visual and aural distractions in real rooms with real people.  We keep an eye on the falling-asleepers and crane forwards to check if the fresh platters brought in by the catering staff have some tempting new delicacies. We hear the clatter of cups and saucers and the occasional shattering of a glass when an unfortunate waiter lets one slip. And we really suffocate from malodour when a participant lets one slip while everyone looks around innocently, pretending it wasn’t them. Real meetings can be fun.

In webinars and virtual meetings there is just a small screen with only your head and shoulders visible. Well, sometimes we see an open medicine chest (do you really need that blue pill?) or a kitchen cupboard which is so untidy, it wouldn’t look out of place on a rubbish heap.

Or your camera is so badly positioned that I have a better view up your nostrils than an ENT with an endoscope. It’s disturbing. But the cupboards don’t move and we might ignore them. One attendee at a recent video meeting seemed rather bored. She swaggered to the rear of her room and with an elegant swirl of her arms, removed her dress, under which she was wearing only panties. She sauntered lazily back to her laptop and sat there quite naked until my private message alerted her. Whilst we can and do pass private notes to each other during real meetings, I have never experienced anyone sitting around naked. Real meetings can be boring.

Beware of what you say, lest someone dies.

Webinars and video meetings can be worse. The little screens and lack of distractions make you more aware of the abundance of speaking flaws. The repeated use of You know has started to elicit an involuntary eye roll, not unlike that of Angela Merkel because no, I don’t know. You’re the expert. Tell me. Thoughts of suicide invade my mind.

Speakers habitually repeat words like the the the the the …, that that that that that … and I   I   I   I   I …. There are many such aberrations which haunt us, often marching in pairs but frequently attacking in waves of five. The worst of them all however is the ubiquitous uhm. By my count the uhms run at an average of 10 per minute. At 20 per minute, and there are many people who achieve this pinnacle, it becomes a nightmare. I feel an urge to reach for my mobile and call my therapist to allay those suicidal thoughts. It is a great relief when a presenter or participant voices only 5 uhms per minute and a major miracle when one doesn’t uhm at all. If I get infected by ‘the virus‘ I am more likely to die than you are. I lie in the very high risk group. There is nonetheless a lower risk that I die of the virus than the risk of death by suicide to which the Uhm avalanche drives me.

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The maths is simple. If one uhm wastes one second, that is at least 600 seconds per hour. Ten minutes wasted every hour. When one adds in the other pointless repetitions of words and phrases and what, for some, appears to be the obligatory lazy Aah and the meaningless, unthinking, unnecessary Ja, a two-hour meeting can be shortened by 30 minutes

Wouldn’t you rather lounge at the pool, sipping your favourite drink than being terrified by the onslaught of uhms? It is unlikely that I develop Temporary-auto-optic-neuro-aural-editing-deafness syndrome (TAONAEDS)8, but I cannot un-hear the uhms, just as I cannot un-see that naked participant.

Great orators don’t uhm. Martin Luther King didn’t uhm once in his 32 minute ‘I have a Dream’ speech. Neither did Winston Churchill when, for a full 12 minutes, he delivered his ‘We shall never Surrender’ statement in the British parliament. These two speeches are beauties to behold. Or should that be a delight to belisten?

It takes focus and concentration not to uhm. That effort drains energy. It’s exhausting. That’s why virtually everyone really uhms. That’s why there are so few great presenters and hardly any outstanding attendees at webinars who don’t uhm. Please listen to yourself. Our mental health is at risk. The government shouldn’t ban tobacco. It would be a better health measure to ban the Uhm.

Footnote: My thanks to the wonderful James Clarke who created the demon E*D*I*T*O*R* who probably trained my E*D*I*T*O*R* for whom I have now written about a different pandemic. As Commanded.

8TAONAEDS is a recently discovered malady which has not yet been recorded in any medical journal or diagnostic handbook. Little known psychologist, Dr Insight Mentalhauser-Doppelpsyche, is documenting cases in the hope of discovering a vaccine to mitigate the damage of WEBMEET-20.

Thanks to Helene vd Westhuizen for editing this article

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