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Unable to resist the urge to wave at the end of Zoom calls? You're not alone

From our tiny squares of digital real estate, many of us have become aggressive wavers. Body language experts say this is a good thing.
Illustration of people waving to one another over a video call on a laptop.
The Zoom wave provides social connections when many of us are missing them, experts say. It also sends a clear yet polite signal that the meeting is over, as opposed to just clicking away. Jack Sachs / for NBC News

Cody Kennedy never plans on speaking extra loudly during videoconference calls. He never plans on leaning in so close to his computer camera that barely anything other than his forehead is visible to his colleagues. And he certainly never plans on ending virtual meetings with a wave goodbye that is so exaggerated, he cringes at the sight of his own video feed.

Yet all of these things happen on nearly every video meeting Kennedy is on — and he has no idea why.

“I have never felt the need to wave in person,” Kennedy, 36, the chief communications and marketing officer for the city of Olathe, Kansas, said. “What am I doing?”

Image: Cody Kennedy waves.
Self-described Zoom and Microsoft Teams waver Cody Kennedy.Courtesy of Cody Kennedy

Thrust into more videoconferences than ever due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have discovered a shared quirk from within the tiny squares of digital real estate in our new meeting format: the Zoom wave.

Significantly livelier than one in nearly any face-to-face setting, the wave at the conclusion of these remote meetings causes a range of reactions among those who do it, from embarrassment to enthusiasm.

Yet psychologists, body language experts and those who study digital communication all agree: Waving at the end of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other videoconference calls is a good thing — an indication that just because we have been socially distanced for the last 14 months does not mean we have become socially inept.

“If we weren’t waving at the beginning of Zoom calls, and especially at the end, I would be worried for humankind.”

“If we weren’t waving at the beginning of Zoom calls, and especially at the end, I would be worried for humankind,” said body language expert Patti Wood, author of 10 books, including “Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma.” “I would think, ‘Oh my gosh, are we ever going to recover from this?’”

Social media is filled with chatter from people who say they can’t help but wave at the end of video calls. And many are just as baffled as Kennedy as to why they do it.

The experts say there are several factors at play. The Zoom wave provides a social connection at a time when many of us are missing those, they said. It also sends a clear, yet polite, signal that the meeting is over, as opposed to just clicking away.

“It creates not only a sense of closure and alignment but is also, for some, a signal of respect and acknowledgment: valuing others for their time, their engagement with us,” said Erica Dhawan, author of the book “Digital Body Language,” which came out earlier this month.

It also replaces traditional nonverbal cues that happen in a meeting when people are about to leave, such as shuffling papers, reaching for your phone or breaking eye contact.

“We are reinforcing our messages with more explicit signals, like hand-waving, because traditional body language signals are invisible or much more difficult to read on a thumbnail on a screen,” Dhawan said.

As for why the waves tend to be over-exaggerated: “We want it to be visible within that square,” Wood said.

The wave is also practical as we navigate technical glitches, such as the screen freezing or audio hiccups, said Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Clemson University who studies workplace well-being and teamwork effectiveness.

“I think we’re really trying to maximize nonverbal cues when we can, because we’re not always able to be the one to communicate if we’re not the one actively speaking in the meeting,” she said. “It’s a way to signal, yes, this is definitely over. We all accept the wave as a message that we are leaving, goodbye. Even if you can’t hear me, hopefully you can at least see me.”

If the Zoom wave is good, why does it feel so strange?

While the Zoom wave has become a standard signoff, it can still feel a little awkward.

The fact that we see ourselves on screen is a major contributor to this feeling, Wood said. So many people fixate on their own image throughout video meetings that she suggests covering up your square with a Post-It note.

“You otherwise spend most of the time looking at yourself and evaluating yourself,” she said, adding that women tend to evaluate themselves more critically.

The “almost childlike” nature of the wave also might make us feel a little ridiculous, Dhawan said.

“We relate it to signals and cues of a preschool,” she said.

The timing of the wave, too, can contribute to its awkwardness.

“You do the wave, and then it takes you a couple seconds to find the exit button,” said Virginia Streeter, 27, a community development and planning graduate student who lives in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is a Zoom waver. “Have you ever left a meeting, you said goodbye to everyone, and you end up on the same bus home as someone? It feels like those couple seconds are similar.”

But without a wave, exiting the meeting wouldn’t feel right, she said.

“It would feel like hanging up on someone without saying goodbye,” Streeter said.

Natalie Patrice Tucker, 44, of Oakland, California, feels a lot of awkwardness would be eliminated if waves were limited only to meetings with a small number of attendees.

Tucker, whose job involves ensuring web products are accessible to people with disabilities, has her own protocol for Zoom signoffs. It involves saying goodbye and waving if there is just one other participant; waving but not saying goodbye if there are between two and five other participants; and not saying goodbye or waving at all if there are more than five.

Earlier this month, she tweeted out her plan, to the amusement of her co-workers.

“People think I’m kidding, but no,” Tucker said, adding that long, chaotic goodbyes that extend the length of remote meetings have got to go.

“It’s just madness,” she said.

Is the Zoom wave here to stay?

Experts speculate the Zoom wave could replace certain in-person interactions.

“I think you’re going to have a larger percentage of the population that just from now on won’t shake hands,” Wood said.

She said even before the pandemic, she had already seen some people who would not shake hands in a job interview and were afraid of germs, most of them belonging to what she dubs the “Purell generation” of individuals who were raised using hand sanitizer frequently.

For some people, all the Zoom goodbyes have already translated into real-life actions. Streeter is finding that the wave she does on video calls now happens face to face, too.

“I was talking to a friend and we were going different directions, and I waved really aggressively, and I sort of found myself thinking, 'Have I always done that?' Then I realized that it was the Zoom wave,” she said. “I feel like it’s somewhat, at the moment, replaced hugs.”

Shuffler, the psychologist, believes returning to in-person work and transitioning away from remote meeting tendencies will be an adjustment for everyone.

“We may see an overload of all kinds of social interaction and social cues,” she said. “Things you might normally do, like leaving the office, leaving a meeting, may become a little bit more exaggerated.”

In the meantime, for those still working remotely, there are ways to optimize communication. Dhawan recommends sitting close enough to your camera that your facial expressions can be seen on video calls but far enough that your hand gestures can be, as well.

Care should be paid to other digital interactions, too.

“If someone stayed up all night to work on something for us, then came to the office to give it to us, they could see our relief, our appreciation on our face,” she said. “Now, if they just get a 'thx' email, they may not feel as acknowledged.”

As for waving at the end of video calls, embrace it if it feels right to you, the experts said. That is something Kennedy, the communications officer, is working on.

“Does the meeting end if you don’t wave?” he said. “Somehow, it’s become part of the culture of virtual.”