UI communications expert tells us why we still wave to each other at the end of Zoom calls
Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Among the enduring social changes to follow the COVID-19 pandemic has been a collective shift to group video calls for work meetings. Many of us still end those calls with a “Zoom wave” three years later. But why?

Susan Wagner Cook, associate professor in University of Iowa’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and director of The Communication, Cognition and Learning Lab, has spent decades researching why human beings gesture to communicate and how those hand movements deepen learning and social connection. 

Susan Wagner Cook
Susan Wagner Cook

She’s also an ambivalent practitioner of the “Zoom wave” and sees potential lessons that may one day be applied in classrooms. Her research has already shown students retain more information from math lessons and storytelling when gestures are used. 

Why do we move our hands when communicating with other people? 

It’s a mystery. We don’t have to. We can communicate with words, but we feel this urge. People gesture on their cell phones regularly, wandering around and moving their hands. Even when we’re on Zoom with the camera off, we may be moving our hands when we talk. 

There isn’t a coherent theory that really accounts for the complexity of how and why we use our hands when we speak. It's a universal behavior, but it’s still a mystery. We’re studying gesture to gain a deeper understanding of how people learn and communicate because we know words aren’t always everything we’re trying to say.

What is the point of the “Zoom wave” and why can’t we stop doing it? 

There are two things that are kind of interesting about interacting on Zoom. One thing we know is that when we're interacting with people face-to-face, we use shared space in certain ways and we’re more likely to gesture. Some of those gestures are so important that if we put a screen between two people, they will raise some of their gestures up above the screen so their partner can see them. 

Zoom creates this weird thing where we are looking at someone as if we're in a face-to-face interaction, but we're actually in a strange virtual space. It’s not clear what everyone else can see and not see or whether or not they are looking at you. And so here comes the Zoom wave. 

We also have motor resonance—when you gesture, I'm more likely to gesture. And I think the Zoom wave is part of that—when a person waves, it's almost automatic to wave back. And we know that when people do the same movements at the same time, they like feel more connected. Social psychology studies show that we’re more likely to be empathetic toward people that we've synchronized movements with. If we’re all waving at the same time, it makes us feel more connected to the people around us. So one person waving leads other people to wave and that creates a little social connection. Except it then feels weird because we are not in the same space.

Why are we still waving three years out?

The fact that we are still waving three years out tells us that it's really useful, that it may be serving an interpersonal function. We acknowledge everyone with the wave and to most people that feels good. It’s a little impolite not to wave even if we feel weird doing it.

What are some of the practical applications of your research?

Right now I’m trying to figure out how to personalize instruction so that we can in the moment create instruction that will help learners attend to things they’re missing or don’t understand. 

We’re developing tools where we can dynamically create different gestures for different learners or slow down the pace of instruction to help students better follow what the teacher is saying. Webcam-based eye tracking is improving so you can imagine a virtual lesson where, in real-time, a teacher can see what you’re paying attention to or when you’re off task and adapt the instruction to your needs.

For example, I read a study where a teacher wore smart glasses while students worked on their laptops and they used an used an algorithm that could diagnose when a student needed help and then virtually raise their hand for the teacher. For many people, we don’t always recognize when we need help so this got struggling students help sooner and kept them on task. Similarly we might be able to adapt gestures to help maintain and support learners’ attention.

What lessons from your research can we take into the workplace? 

My research is focused on teaching and learning, but generally we know that face-to-face communication is more efficient and less likely to be misunderstood then text-based communication. 

So, one lesson might be that, when you’re deciding how to communicate important messages, you might think about what medium you want to use. Sending texts or emails, for example, allows you to finely craft your communication but there’s a chance it won’t be fully understood and you won’t get any dynamic feedback from the recipient. 

You also want to be aware of the different channels you’re using to communicate. It’s easy to focus on the words, but the words aren’t always everything you’re saying. Human communication is multi-dimensional.