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There is something uniquely terrifying about being asked to unmute yourself over Zoom.
Thrown into the spotlight by a professor who requires students to stay unmuted, you are stripped of the security of silence as the entire class looks on. Will they be able to hear the bubbling slurps from my water bottle? What about my roommate singing as she cleans the kitchen? The embarrassment engendered by such noises is made exponentially worse by Zoom’s “Active Speaker” function. With green highlighting identifying your box as the noisy culprit, any sound becomes a public condemnation.
The question of precisely how much that little microphone on the side of your computer can pick up is one that has been heavily debated with the shift to virtual school. Students have to take bets on how much noise they can get away with in classes where muting is not an option. The occasional snicker from your classmates as your mom comes in to ask you — or rather, you and the rest of the class — a question is only one of many indications of defeat in this little game we play. And no matter how many times we tell our parents that, yes, we still have class, they seem to believe attendance is optional.
But what exactly causes us to become so unnerved when our professors and teaching fellows ask us to be fully present in class — mic on and all? Why do we become indignant when we are asked to emerge from our perfect shrouds of silence?
Harvard students have a vulnerability problem. We get to this place where everyone is exceptional, and we fight to suppress any indication that we’re not. We struggle to admit to each other that the very things that make us interesting, the little flaws and peccadillos that make us human, aren’t there. And we do this all the while trying to convince ourselves that we’re not the one mistake the admissions committee made — a file in the wrong pile.
So, why wouldn’t we seek to control our image in every way possible? In virtual school, we can save ourselves the embarrassment of an otherwise crunchy snack that would’ve been too noisy to enjoy in lecture. At least we can still privately message our problem set buddies even if we can’t sit next to them.
Zoom has its benefits, sure. And I’m not saying we should all be unmuting ourselves in lectures with 200 people; I’m not an advocate of technical chaos nor am I delusional. But, next time you’re in a seminar and the professor asks you to unmute or speak up, I think you should question your hesitancy.
The allure of the mute button on Zoom is the same as our endless desire to present a perfect image: a manicured front that seems welcoming, but in reality, is so carefully designed that it prevents any real authenticity.
We’re not afraid of that little button. We’re afraid of saying the wrong things, joining the wrong clubs, and deviating from the path of perfection that is so clearly laid out before us. We give our standard Harvard introductions, lament the piles of work that (despite our hours of dedication) never seem to subside, and go back to our predictable, socially acceptable existences. Together, but alone.
It’s almost not our fault. When we mute, it’s easier to portray the version of ourselves that we want the world to see. To unmute yourself is to be exposed in a way. It is to know that every single sound you make is going to be heard.
Even having your camera on is far more intimate than anything we would have otherwise experienced. At least with in-person classes, you meet in the neutral space of a classroom and can pick a somewhat isolated seat if you hope to avoid attention. But on Zoom, we are forced to allow others to witness the most intimate portions of our lives. Every action feels put on display. Our classmates can now see our bedrooms and our kitchens. They get to meet the people we’ve chosen to weather this crazy pandemic with, and maybe even learn your family’s special nickname for you. Small talk has shifted from comments on Cambridge’s dismal weather to comments on that poster above your headboard. The onslaught of personal details is so very present.
It’s totally understandable that we might become nervous to let so many into our little imperfect worlds. It is a difficult thing to let others see the places where we are freely awkward, or “off,” or messy. It asks something of us.
But when we curate our images or silence ourselves, we ground the connections we’re making in something that is inauthentic. Worse, we prevent others from seeing (or hearing) us for all that we are. And, as our teachers so lovingly remind us by asking us to unmute, everyone misses out as a result because we all have something unique to offer.
Nina I. Paneque ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor.
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