Talking at a distance: Oracy in a time of isolation and uncertainty

by Alan Howe

This article should be read alongside its companion piece, Talking Tech: Developing oracy online.

I’ve been thinking about what effect the current necessary imposition of social distancing, home-based work, and isolation is having on the way we are using words to interact with others.

If you’re a teacher, how has the restriction of contact with your students affected the way you talk to each other?

In your family, are you interacting differently with your offspring if they’re at home with you? Or with your partner if you are both now at home and in each others’ company 24/7? Or with your close relatives if you are restricted to a weekly online chat?

What about your friends: is a virtual pub session, or a mates quiz night, a satisfying experience?

And what about work meetings, discussions, collaboration, problem solving, or decision-making, when you have to conduct these sitting in front of a screen wearing headphones and smartish clothes on the top half of your body?

As we continue to try to get things done through talk, what do we find we have to do differently? Stop doing? Learn to do anew?

After three weeks engaging in many of the above situations (well, not the virtual pub – I wasn’t sure how to go about getting a round in), as well as talking to friends and family about their experiences of talking together, I’m wondering about what we might be learning about our adaptability as spoken language users within these constraints.

How are you managing to maintain good communication? What is frustrating, difficult or impossible to do well?  Might there be some side benefits, some practices that we can learn from and adapt to when we return to a changed normal?

Here are a few ideas and questions for your reflection:

Online Meetings

Almost overnight, many of us have had to become adept at logging in, familiarising ourselves with the features and vagaries of different online meeting platforms, and then using them effectively. A quick search reveals the following online conferencing / meeting platforms, all competing to have the most eye-catching name:

Klaxon;; ezTalks; Zoho Meeting; Join.Me; Click Meeting; Skype; Slack; High Five; Microsoft Teams; Webinar Ninja; Zoom.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve participated in online meetings through my work, as a member of two virtual choirs, and in family and friends get-togethers.

There are definitely downsides:

  • It’s frustrating to have to stare at a gallery of faces on a screen; to realise that to take turns you can’t just rely on clearing your throat or murmuring ‘Yeeesss…’ at an appropriate moment, or simply by catching someone’s eye. It can be disconcerting to have these and other subtle features of face-to-face interaction removed.
  • You can’t easily tell who’s listening to you, who’s not, or who’s just pretending to be interested. Well-established conversational habits that allow you to talk across someone else to gain the centre ground suddenly no longer apply. You can’t, for example, interrupt someone and find that talking space is easily ceded: instead, others carry on, ignoring your contribution.
  • The talking dynamic is strangely flattened out. There can be sudden longueurs or embarrassed pauses as participants are not sure about who’s holding the talking space at any one time. When you follow the agreed protocol of raising your hand if you wish to contribute you find that the host studiously ignores you, with no other way of indicating that you wish to speak.
  • Much of the talk tends to be tedious and mundane, taken up with addressing the numerous technical issues that can arise with a group who are relatively inexperienced at meeting online – repetitions of how to navigate the features of the particular platform being used (‘I’m just sharing my screen with you… can you all see it? There’s a button in the bottom right hand corner of your screen… you can’t find it? Jane, you’ve unmuted yourself and we can hear you talking to your cat…’)
  • Then there’s the problem of ‘screen burn’ – not in the sense of the original definition (the discoloration of an electronic display), but the pain behind the eyes caused by having to look intently at a screen for several hours a day. It is not possible to sustain your concentration in an online meeting or a webinar in the same way as when you’re in the same room. This is an apparent paradox. Surely, if you are home alone looking at and listening others through a screen, you should be able to switch off mentally without making it obvious? However, it seems that the intense focus on a single lit rectangle – and the inflexibility of the medium so that, for example, the rhythm of the meeting can no longer be negotiated through non-verbal cues – contribute to a sense of living in a slightly alternative universe where the usual rules of discourse don’t quite apply.

On the other hand, these online sessions reveal other aspects of interactive talk that could be having a positive impact.

  • Are you finding, as I am, that more voices get airtime? That those who usually sit quietly or whose voices are subsidiary to the dominant speakers when you are together get their say? Maybe this is because you have to do a lot more inner processing when in a screen meeting?
  • It’s OK to sit quietly and absorb what others are saying as you’re less visible when you do so, but when you contribute the green box around your image on screen lights up and sends a signal to everyone else that you are having your say.
  • In addition, a chairperson/host can MUTE other participants! It strikes me that this is a great feature, one that I wish I could have imported into real time meetings on occasions or in my classroom (where I’m certain my students would have used this facility – to mute me as well as their fellow students!).

I wonder if adapting to the demands of online meetings can have some benefits for how we use oracy skills:

  • More focused listening
  • Greater equality of participation
  • More opportunity for solo processing followed by thoughtful or more extended contributions
  • A greater recognition of the kinds of protocols required for a meeting to function well. Different ‘ground rules’ need to be made explicit at the start, and reinforced throughout (‘Kevin, I’m going to mute you so that Linda can finish what she was saying’)
  • Being ‘muted’ is interesting. In addition, there’s the responsibility for having something sensible, useful, and clear to say that comes along with being ‘unmuted’.
  • I particularly like the opportunity to use the ‘chat’ facility to enable a collective running commentary to run alongside an online presentation, or to develop a shared subtext in a meeting. Participants can accompany what’s being said aloud with other thoughts, ideas and questions, which can then be reviewed before discussion resumes to the benefit of the ensuing quality of discussion. It may be that using the ‘chat’ facility alongside live discussion or whilst listening to a presentation could result in more ideas than those that are actually voiced can be viewed, shared, considered and incorporated.

How have your experiences of joining with a virtual group to work together compared with these reflections? What have you had to learn to do differently in the way you speak, listen and interact? What’s the balance of frustration vs positive elements? And when we do return to ‘normal’, what do you think we might all have learned that can be retained, sustained or continued once we are back together in the same room?

Family conversations

I wonder whether enforced isolation in family groups is having a positive, negative or surprising impact on the way that families talk with each other.

Close proximity in the same household isn’t necessarily a recipe for closer, high quality talk, but it could be.

I’m observing more family groups taking joint exercise together. Parents (with the exception of key workers) may have more time on their hands, which can be filled with joint activities with their children.

I also wonder what effect home schooling might have on parent-child conversations. And what about the effect of the virus and its impact on our normal activities? There is a great onus on parents to explain, interpret and mediate news items with their children, in order to ensure that enough is known and understood to make the restrictions palatable.

Young children

My six-year-old grandson joins in the family get-togethers we’ve been having, but mainly just to wave and josh about a bit in the background. We ask him direct questions and he’ll reply, but it seems that he isn’t really engaged. Last week, his parents arranged a get-together for several of his classmates, fearing that they would easily lose contact with their friends, and would welcome a chance to meet up. Apparently, they largely stared at the screen and waved at each other. I shouldn’t be surprised, but this anecdote does reveal something interesting about the talk of young children. Such as:

  • The context is alien to them. They don’t have a sense of the protocols required to talk when the persons you are with aren’t actually there (something we are all having to learn).
  • Much, perhaps most, of six year old talk is firmly embedded in the here-and-now of shared activities, play, making, doing: the concrete reality that an online meeting so effectively removes.
  • Who was in control anyway? Adults set the session up, patrolled its outer edges and ended up speaking to each other. I guess the children, without any experience of a ‘meeting’ to call on, and no sense of purpose, simply waited until they could go back to doing something that they’d chosen to do. When you’re six, is a friend only someone who accompanies you in doing something engaging, rather than someone to talk to? At what age does a friend become a talk friend? And how does that happen? When do youngsters internalise the unwritten rules and conventions of engaging in talking together in a video meeting?


Finally, I have definitely noticed, in my neighbourhood, a greater sense of neighbourly camaraderie and friendly conversation, albeit helped by the pleasant spring weather.

There is also a greater sense of courtesy and good humour in the brief two-metre distanced conversations as you pass others in the street, or whilst waiting in the supermarket queue.

I appreciate the relative luxury of having a garden to escape to. And I am also well aware that for some, isolation isn’t just a new situation to adapt to, but a place of genuine fear and loneliness, a worrying place of real uncertainty, made up of the loss of income and activities that are life sustaining. But the images of contact through music, singing and voices in apartment blocks around the world suggest that there has been an upsurge in community that, paradoxically, has waited until enforced isolation in order to emerge.

Many of us are experiencing ‘time out’ – time together but at a distance, or time alone. We are having to adapt, not just to the changed circumstances, the prohibitions and restrictions on everyday life, but also to the different demands that this places on when, how and why we talk with each other.

It throws what we so often take for granted, or do unconsciously or instinctively, into relief. In ‘coping’, in adapting, we are engaged in a kind of exploration: How do we…?’ ‘What can I…?’ ‘What if we…?’. Part of this exploration is about the places where talk happens. We have to make adjustments, behave differently. And when we return to the place we left we may start to see it differently as a result.

It would be really great if, having read this blog, you were prepared to continue and extend the dialogue I’ve started here in the comments below – to offer your own thoughts and experiences of how our radically changed modes of working, meeting, playing are calling on new kinds of oracy.

1 thought on “Talking at a distance: Oracy in a time of isolation and uncertainty”

  1. Thank you. For summarising my scattered thoughts and clarifying how and why our current situation is such a transformative opportunity for reflection on dialogue and an examination of the value of reciprocity. Maybe now we can address how and where oracy can be woven into school life and not just into a curriculum.

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