The Elephant of the Energy in the Room

Let me get straight to it. I am terribly depressed and sometimes feel like I’m on the brink of a mental breakdown.
Did I contract COVID? No, I did not.
Did I lose my job or financial security? Hardly.
Am I a burnt-out essential worker? Nope.
Did I lose loved ones? Not yet, thank goodness.
So, what is the problem? Just get on with it.
That’s what I’ve been telling myself for the past eight months.

But something keeps bringing me down. I think I know what it is; and I think I am not the only one feeling it.

Future of Work

Unlike many, I am used to working from home most of the time. Often spending many hours in a day in solitude. However, before COVID, when not working from home, I was teaching students in classrooms, meeting clients and focus groups on location, spending time in airplanes and trains, speaking at conferences. Now I am teaching online, meeting online, presenting in webcasts and webinars and, well, frankly, it is okay, but not very rewarding. I wouldn’t say that I hate it; it’s better than nothing, but it’s very far removed from anything that is remotely resembling meeting people face to face.

Yes, I try to look into the camera when I speak to others, to build connection.
Yes, I try to move away from the camera to facilitate non-verbal communication.
Yes, I sometimes pour a drink and act as though I’m enjoying a cocktail party.
But it’s not (just) the body language, the hugs, the food and drink that I miss.
What I miss most is the energy-filled rooms.

Energy-filled Rooms

And those – energy-filled rooms – are a real thing. The study of chemosignals has provided scientific evidence of the fact that we can smell the emotions of others. It is even suggested that empty spaces sometimes contain emotional residue[1]. So, we can – in fact – sense (through our sensory functions) the energy that is present in a room that is filled with people.
Feel the excitement of anticipation at a concert or conference.
Feel the tension in a plane that is about to depart and the sighs of relief when it hits the tarmac again.
Feel the turmoil in a student-filled lecture hall or classroom.

So, now, students suddenly long for that dreaded lecture in the dusty university auditorium that they used to hate (so they said).
People in retirement homes wish they could go back to those dreadful catering meals in the canteen that they used to hate (so they said).
And oh, how I long for that long queue at airport security clearance (that I thought I hated).

Are we really surprised with the illegal lockdown parties? They are unacceptable, of course, but understandable. Youth psychologists are swamped in support requests and as soon as pandemic control measures are relaxed people meet up in droves again. I think many of us crave the energy-filled rooms (particularly students who normally spend most of their time in them) and – as far as I know – it is not something that has been addressed at all in the discussions about viral control.

Second Wave

The second wave also seems to hit harder. During the first lockdown most of us thought it would be nice to spend more time at home. Online teaching and learning, webinars and Zoom meetings? Yes, pre-2020, we experimented with that occasionally; it was exciting to see how it works for real. And it did work; and we shared lots of funny memes about our new life in lockdown. But now, more than half a year later? I don’t sense much enthusiasm anymore. Or is it just me?

So, they tell us, for our sanity:
Go out into the woods for longs walks; exercise.
Meet a friend in the park for a chat.
Organize a Zoom quiz.
All good, important, practical and well-intended suggestions – more acted upon now than they were half a year ago, so it seems (I see more people outside now than during our first lockdown) – but to me they just don’t do the trick.

Future of Meetings

More than ever it proves a couple of points for me:
Culture and the event industry are not just there for our pleasure.
Travel and tourism are not just a luxury.
Hotels, restaurants, theatres, and cafes serve basic human needs; physiological and – just as essential – social needs.
Knowledge exchange is not just about, well, knowledge.
The health risks that these sectors pose should not just be weighed against economic arguments. It should just as much be a discussion about who we are and want to be as a society.
Schools are essential – no doubt! But are physical meetings in higher education, for conferences, cultural performances, exhibitions, events completely expendable? I think not.


But how does this insight help us at all? Obviously, arguing for a complete lifting of restrictions would be utterly irresponsible.
Well, for one thing, rapid testing might soon offer part of a solution! Allowing rapid testing as a gate-keeping mechanism at events is currently shrugged off as an extravagance or presented as a solution to save the events and travel industries economically. But maybe we need it more so for everyone to keep their sanity?
Also, maybe I’m naïve, but I would be willing to give up some privacy for more effective and efficient tracking and tracing systems that would allow us more freedom of movement.
Lastly, those venues that can organize events safely; let them do so. The argument of unfair competition – venue A has to close down; and therefore, so does venue B – makes me sick. If economic justice is what we’re after, then what’s next? Shutting the internet down?

I am not writing this to advocate one or other solution though, but to raise the issue and to make sure that we take it into account when we consider viral control mechanisms in the near and distant future. Occasionally being with people in a room might as well be as basic a human need as eating, drinking and shelter. We wouldn’t ask people to sleep outside during a pandemic. Let’s not allow the energy to be the elephant in the room either.
Robert Govers

Photo credit: The Real Elephant in the Room by Bruce Postle via Victoria State Library

[1] Calvi (2020) The scent of emotions: A systematic review of human intra‐ and interspecific chemical communication of emotions. Brain and Behavior 10(5) Published online 2020 March 25. doi: 10.1002/brb3.1585