Far apart but closer than ever: How the coronavirus is helping extended families connect
Zoom, FaceTime and other video call technologies are enabling family members to bond even when they’re far apart
SALT LAKE CITY — My days are spent in isolation. I wake up, alone. I commute to my living room couch, alone. And I make and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for one. If I change from my pajamas to pajamas-that-can-pass-for-workout-clothes, I call it “getting dressed.”
With two roommates who work in health care (a nurse manager opening a COVID unit and a respiratory therapist), it is usually well into the evening before I see another human. When one of them finally stumbles wearily through the door after a long shift, I react like a startled deer, the tranquility of my habitat destroyed. And I am suddenly aware that I need to comb my hair.
My daily existence contrasts comedically with that of some of my peers, who heroically wrangle children from sunrise to sundown while trying to dig themselves out from under a mountain of work responsibilities. While I don’t envy the chaos, I certainly envy the company.
At the same time, I feel that my family is more connected than ever. Like other families around the world, we are making a concerted effort to check in on each other in the midst of the coronavirus crisis via weekly Zoom video calls.
Normally, my parents, my three sisters, their families and I only find ourselves gathered together on special occasions: Christmas, weddings, funerals. But for an hour or two on an otherwise mundane Sunday afternoon, they all magically appear in my living room. Technology shrinks New York, Missouri and Utah into tiny squares on my computer, creating a quilt of familiar faces.
Background noise cuts in and out as my 2-year-old niece wiggles and whines about wanting a snack. The lighting is atrocious, some family members looking like silhouettes backlit by bright windows. Others appear trapped in a mirror maze, gazing in different directions because their cameras are separate from their monitors.
But the pandemonium only serves to reflect real life, adding to the feeling that we are really together.
I may be the last generation that remembers a time before video calling was ubiquitous — when it was something that occurred more often in Sci-Fi movies than in reality. I won’t forget the excitement of downloading Skype for the first time so that I could chat with my middle school friends after my family moved abroad to Japan. My niece, on the other hand, has been using FaceTime since she could hold a phone and has already mastered the use of Animojis. She will never be mystified by seeing the face of a loved one far away.
While it still feels like a modern phenomenon, the idea of video calling dates back to the 1870s. As soon as Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, people started speculating about how to transmit images along with the sound. Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film, “Metropolis,” included one of the first fictional appearances of video calling, which would be followed by countless similar scenes in nearly every futuristic or space-themed movie created thereafter.
In 1964, AT&T unveiled its Model 1 Picturephone at the World’s Fair in New York. It looked like something out of the “Jetsons” — a classic telephone attached to a large and oblong desktop device that displayed a small black and white screen. Fast forward to 2010 when Steve Jobs of Apple announced a groundbreaking new feature of the iPhone 4: FaceTime. With a big touch screen and front facing camera, the videophone could be carried around in your pocket. Jobs declared, “It’s real now.”
I agree. Watching my sister blow out candles on the birthday cake we left on her front porch on March 29 is definitely more real than a happy birthday text. Nine adults singing the “potty song” in unison while a 2-year-old beams with pride is absolutely more real than getting an update on a new milestone in the family group chat. And seeing my brother-in-law’s reaction while my sister talks about how long it’s been since she shaved her legs or washed her hair is an experience that is entirely irreplaceable.
Talking on the phone calls for multitasking, like folding laundry or assembling dinner. I’ve even been guilty of scrolling through social media while I listen to a sibling talk on speakerphone. But on video, you meet face to face. The experience demands both eye contact and attention. Even though it’s virtual, the human brain still responds to seeing the faces of loved ones with a release of dopamine.
Seeing a person’s face is critical for communication as well. Research by UCLA psychology professor emeritus Albert Mehrabian revealed that 7% of a message is derived from words, 38% from intonation, and 55% from facial expression or body language. A more recent UCLA study examined how bonded friends felt after engaging in in-person, video chat, audio chat, and instant messaging conversations. Not surprisingly, the greatest bonding took place during in-person interaction. But video chatting was a close second. And the people who used video chat more frequently, reported greater bonding through that medium.
For me, the greatest benefit of family video chatting is the feeling of unity. In the near-forgotten world before the coronavirus, I would call my sisters individually, every so often, to catch up on life. But a family is not the disparate relationships, but the whole.
In her traditional sing-songy fashion, my mother calls out the names of each of her children as we log on one by one — Erica! Elisabeth! Emily! Juliet! — while my father busily adjusts the monitor.
My parents, who are in their mid-60s, are suddenly more precious to me. Nothing seems permanent anymore: Utah Jazz games with my dad, concerts with my mom, shopping, meals out, trips to see my sisters in other states. It’s clearer now than ever that the things we take for granted can disappear in a moment.
The brightest silver lining I can see is that the coronavirus has provided a marvelous excuse to avoid the people who suck up my time and energy and an unparalleled opportunity to rededicate myself to the relationships that matter most.
We catch up on everyone’s health, work and quarantine routines. My father reads updates from ‘The Bump’ app he follows to keep track of the development of my sister’s unborn child. With the baby due next month, none of us are certain when social distancing rules will allow us to meet him. We end our video chat with our family tradition of praying together and saying one thing we love about the person next to us. Usually, we go around the room, but instead we jump from screen to screen at random.
Though the words are communicated virtually across miles, sound waves and pixels, the affection is just as real.