If you’ve spent any time over the past few years on group video calls, perhaps, by now, the “Zoom wave” feels natural to you—or as natural as it possibly could. How else would you bid farewell to your virtual comrades after a budget meeting, or a graduate seminar, or a family catch-up? Clicking “Leave meeting” and vanishing seems a little harsh. No—you wave. The elbow is bent sharply to fit it in view of the webcam. The motion is exaggerated, as earnest as a golden retriever. You make eye contact with everyone, which is to say no one. Especially now that remote work is common for white-collar workers, people—myself included—are doing the same corny little gesture in front of countless computer screens across the country, all looking like nerds.
I needed to know why we American office workers have decided to collectively embarrass ourselves in this specific way, so I asked some experts. Body-language researchers told me that although some people probably Zoom-waved before the pandemic, the gesture really took off in the COVID-lockdown era. In December 2019, Zoom had about 10 million meeting participants daily; by April 2020, that number exceeded 300 million. Many people weren’t used to this many group video calls, to frozen screens and unmuting and side-chatting, to feeling disembodied and dislocated and isolated. So perhaps in an effort to make it all feel a little more normal, they started doing the wave at the end of meetings. It quickly became “part of the ritual of signing off,” Spencer Kelly, a Colgate University psychologist, neuroscientist, and gesture researcher, told me.