Zoom friends discover if they measure up in person.
By Victor Omojola
Jeannie Ren, CC ’24, is tall—5-foot-10, to be exact. For reference, that’s a whole six inches taller than the national average for women, if Medical News Today is to be believed. But aside from being statistically above average, Ren’s towering real-life stature struck me most because of its contrast with the rather diminutive one I had imagined attached to the upper torso, neck, and head I knew from Zoom. As soon as I saw her, I (perhaps rudely) relayed my surprise. This reaction to her physical presence, she informed me, is one she receives often.
Ren is the muse of this piece. Our interaction sent me on an enlightening journey to discover how and why we make assumptions about people’s height in virtual spaces, and what this means as we re-enter the physical world. Without a doubt, racial and sexual factors are at play here. As Ren told me, “It’s extremely unusual for me to be, like, ten inches taller than the average Asian woman.” But I’ve come to learn that other considerations, such as how much one dominates conversations over Zoom, are also relevant. After all, despite my miscalculation, Ren’s stature well matched the intellectual height of her comments concerning Dante’s terza rima and Austen’s free indirect discourse. It’s quite fascinating that one can spend nearly eight months peering into someone’s physical room and hearing their metaphysical ruminations and still have no sense of their corporeal presence.
After months of virtual Student Council meetings together, Teji Vijaykumar, CC ’24, first met Kathan Reddy, CC ’24, in person this March. As Reddy walked out of his girlfriend’s bathroom, Vijaykumar “literally screamed out loud,” as Reddy phrased it—“a horrid, a terrified scream.” Her cries were more a result of Reddy’s unexpected appearance than a shock at his being 6-foot-3. Still, 5-foot-1 Vijaykumar originally undershot Reddy’s height by a few inches, and Reddy had pegged Vijaykumar at a solid 5-foot-7. Like myself with Ren, they had both greatly misjudged each other’s altitudes.
Last fall, Elaje Lopez, CC ’24, and Arjun Shreekumar, CC ’24, began to bond over their shared passion for The Great British Baking Show. I was curious to know if intimate video chat conversations concerning pastries and pies from across the pond formed a strong enough basis for correctly predicting each other’s physical sizes. Shreekumar did well to place Lopez at just one or two inches too tall (she’s really 5-foot-4), explaining that she “gives off taller-than-average vibes.” Lopez’s 6-foot-0 assessment of Shreekumar’s five feet and seven inches was a tad—shall we say—vertically optimistic.
Up until fairly recently, my own height was a minor source of insecurity. I had spent just short of five years being just short of six feet, and the yearning for that additional inch of social currency was exhausting. Nonetheless, at my last physical in March, a nurse found me to be an even 6-foot-0 for the first time in my life. But I remained underwhelmed. I was still unvaccinated, attending classes remotely, and the sad reality was that there was no social arena for me to flex my newly reached pinnacle.
As the above stories of height misjudgment show, the virtual classroom diminishes whatever social advantage height might normally offer. A level playing field that nullifies one’s stature is one of the things Vijaykumar loves most about Zoom. “You have to sort of announce yourself before you talk,” she said. “Being a small person, in general, you usually don’t take up a lot of physical space and sometimes you might not end up taking a lot of space in the conversation.” Though he also emphasized the many downsides of the virtual meeting space, Reddy still echoed Vijaykumar’s comments, arguing that online, one is “physically equal to everyone on screen.”
I asked everyone I spoke with if the idea of acquaintances being unimpressed with their height in a first in-person meeting results in any anxiety. Lopez said that she had not given it much thought and that she is more concerned about her own reaction to other people’s heights. “Out of nervousness or awkwardness, I would probably say something like, ‘Whoa, you’re short,’ and then immediately regret it.” When I made this same inquiry to Ren, she quipped that she’s “grown into it.”
I feel that through my conversations, two critical pieces of information were revealed. The first is that people are really bad at guessing height over the internet. The other is that the virtual meeting space has helped to expose the physical world’s many shortcomings (no pun intended) when it comes to creating an environment in which everyone feels comfortable being a part of the conversation. It may be a tall order (pun intended), but as we leave the keyboard for the chalkboard, it will be in everyone's interest for us to render size irrelevant.