Before this article influences more discussion, I want to point out that it provides no research relevant to the claim that "video chats short circuit a brain function essential for trust."
The only research cited show that face-to-face contact is more effective at soliciting donations than email , that non-verbal cues are important for feeling trust , something about sunglasses affecting theory of mind, and (ironically) that credibility assessments are stronger without visual cues . The only sentence that actually applies to video chat is Frances Westley's complaint that "the quality...and satisfaction of the interaction...is diminished."
There's something to be said for the intimidation of physical presence, as well. The stature and physical proximity of the individual being spoken to is not a factor in video chats, and I imagine the absence of those factors would have an impact upon solicitations of services which wouldn't normally be forthcoming, like donations.
Things like this always give me a feeling a foul play, but obviously that's just a feeling without proof.
I dearly hope that someday we'll be able to look back and have a realistic view of just how much foul play exists right now. What if someone paid for this narrative without any supporting evidence? What if it was just the product of an idealess reporting team? Who knows... but some day I would love to.
> In-person encounters are crucial for establishing trust and building successful teams, according to research
Sources of many counterexamples: EverQuest, World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Rift.
In all of these games numerous groups of people who have never interacted with each other in person have formed long term successful trusting teams.
EverQuest in particular in its first several years required a lot of teamwork to reach the highest level content, with each team member having to put in effort equivalent to a full time job. EverQuest had a huge "death penalty" compared to pretty much every MMORPG since, with a death sometimes wiping out days or even weeks of advancement and preparation.
It was designed so that you could do very little solo or even in small groups at the high end so you had to rely upon and trust your teammates.
Later MMORPGs toned it down a bit compared to EverQuest , but they still all had things that greatly benefited from successful trusting teams, and those teams formed in all of them.
 As did EverQuest itself. In fact, EQ today is actually a quite fun and interesting game to play solo. On a free play account you can reasonably get a character up to around level 50 solo, which was the limit in original EQ, and that solo character will be able to do a large fraction of what had been the high end content back in the day. On a paid account, which opens up access to more abilities, you can easily solo into at least the 80s or maybe 90s (115 is the current max level).
Hmmm...I wonder if "manage remote teams" might be the key?
At work you'll have your team of engineers, with managers who aren't actually working on the engineering problems themselves. Heck, they might not even be engineers. They are dealing with representing the engineering team as a whole in interactions with other engineering teams, or with non-engineering teams and higher level managers.
In every MMORPG I've played, the "managers" were players out there on the front lines with the rest of the group. You didn't have someone whose role was to just direct and coordinate what the rest of the guild did, and represent the guild to outside interests. No, your "manager" was right out swinging a weapon or casting spells with the rest of the guild on a raid.
Maybe that's the difference? In a game, your "manager" on a team is just another one of the team who does all the normal things expected for the class of character they are playing and just happens to also be coordinating things. At work, manager is a distinct role very different from the roles of the people they are managing. Perhaps that changes the nature of team sufficiently to make trust harder to build?
I agree in theory. Having managers who are also contributing can create an awesome level of trust on a team. In practice, the problem is the "maker's schedule" in software doesn't accommodate time for the constant interruptions of coordination. Swinging an axe is one thing, but software requires large amounts of focused time which is discongruous with management needs.
I think there's a fundamental difference in underlying motivation which probably changes the dynamic. With work most people would rather be doing something else. For a game there's nothing else most people would rather be doing. I can't prove this, but I bet group cohesion and effectiveness is much higher for teams in which the members' motivation is intrinsic (fun) vs extrinsic (money).
True, (and my self-selection has been in tech and legal work, where written communication is primary) but phrases from the article such as "essential", "crucial", and "vital" ring hollow when there are obvious counterexamples.
I've been wondering how much boils down to introverted and extroverted types. Not long after the office lockdowns started, my work calendar became flooded with optional events sent to every employee. I can only view these as coping events, they serve no direct business need.
What factors do you imagine would make it so that in, say, classic EverQuest people can form entirely online teams that work well together to accomplish lengthy tasks that require a high level of trust and cooperation that would not also apply to "real life" teams working to accomplish lengthy tasks that require a high level of trust and cooperation?
For starters people are intrinsically motivated to accomplish video-game tasks while most people are only extrinsically motivated to accomplish work tasks. I'm having trouble believing you aren't being disingenuous.
The stakes in video games are imaginary. Trust between real people in real life is completely different. For soldiers, athletes and even business leaders, the stakes are real and having an in-person relationship makes a difference.
Doesn't that actually bolster my case? If establishing trust is going to affect "real" stakes we've got a bigger incentive to make it work. It should be harder to make it work with "imaginary" stakes because the consequences of failing to establish successful trusting teams would be less.
Also, what is "real" and what is "imaginary"? Time is real regardless of if I spend it on something "real" like work or something "imaginary" like a game.
If I put in 30 hours helping my team on something that I don't actually find fun or interesting because I expect my team will later put in the time to help me with something I do find fun or interesting and my team lets me down I'm just as annoyed at the lost 30 hours if it is a game team as I am if it is a work team. Heck, at least with the work team I still get paid for those useless hours.
I think you're vastly underestimating the importance of these games to people. If you're racing to world first for real world fame it actually has material stakes. Eve Online is famous by being able to transfer an actual real world monetary value to things. Real cash prizes can be on the line.
This stuff has real world as well as emotional value. Just because it's a video game doesn't mean it's less important to those participating in it.
The stakes in pro sports are just as arbitrary and "imaginary" as in games... I know a lot of people who care more about their standing in a guild than in real life. At the end of the day it's still playing out in the brain just as real as any other competition.
I don't get it. Whatever you call "stakes" is just a personal goal set by yourself. It is by definition imaginary. An athlete cares about winning in sports competitions because he put a lot of work in it. In other words the athlete created his own stakes and conditioned himself to believe a certain thing is important. I don't care because I decided to not create these stakes for myself and therefore athletic performance is not very important.
The survival instinct is also a stake that living things create for themselves.
I think it's more about the near-infinite number of people you have to play with on video games vs in-person sports.
If you blow up at someone during a sports game, there will be real-world consequences for you, eventually you will not be able to play that game at all in your geographic area.
If you yell at people over a computer headset it doesn't matter what they think of you, you can simply move on to the next group of people. Very rarely (mostly at the very top levels) does reputation matter. And at the end of the day you can simply name change and escape your rep.
Interpersonally the stakes are orders of magnitude lower in video games than in RL.
I don't think this is a surprise for many people who have been working with people in different offices for a while. I don't have any hard evidence but from my experience you can work with people in other offices for months, often getting the feeling that formality and lack of trust was getting in the way.
But then I burn a ton of fossil fuels to fly over and spend a couple of days with them in person and the discussion changes dramatically. It feels so silly that you need to damage the environment and spend so much money for something that logically seems the same. I am looking at someone's face and talking. But it works, it is so unreasonably effective that from time to time I need to fly just to see a colleague in person.
I've been working remotely for several years. I changed jobs in March, right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic really impacting daily life. As a result I've never met any of my colleagues in person. I often feel like I don't have a good feeling for how they feel about a given topic and spend far too much time and energy trying to manage those relationships.
I'm looking forward to being able to travel again so I can meet at least some of them. In the past, I've participated in "team building" events where the entire (small) engineering group rents out a beach house somewhere for a week. That time is spent split approximately evenly between regular work, brainstorming/planning for the future, and social engagement. I didn't see the value of it before experiencing it, but now I'm 100% in favor of it.
If I ever get to the point where I'm leading an engineering group at a funded startup, semi-annual engineering retreats will definitely be a priority for me. They don't have to be "rent a beach house for two weeks in the Outer Banks", either. I live in rural Arkansas, and there are large cabins on the Buffalo River and White River that go for ~$200 / night or less during the offseason and can comfortably sleep 35 people.
"Sleeps 35", not "35 rooms" - I'm talking about a "lodge", where there are usually multiple bedrooms with multiple beds per room. It's not a hotel situation but it's roughly analogous to the OBX beach houses that I've experienced in the past in that context.
Also, granted, I live in this area and have personal contacts I can reach out to. The listed prices are going to be much higher than that - but last year I reached out to the owners of a couple of these places personally to see about booking something in the offseason, and that was the lowest price I got.
For someone not local and able to negotiate face-to-face, I'd say $500-$700 / night is about what I'd expect. Even so... when you consider the cost of travel and the cost of more "traditional" locations, the difference is pretty much insignificant.
> you develop some degree of trust (and a stronger mental model)
For me, the former flows from the latter. When I meet in person, there is eventually a moment when I get a click feeling. Following that, a person's behavior becomes more predictable. Or at the very least explainable. That leads to comfort, which is a commercial substitute for trust.
That click take me a long time reach on the phone. For whatever reason, it has never happened over video chat.
With one of my best friends we met playing online games and we developed trust between each other by force of voicechat and game-specific trust-based mechanics (remember those Portal 2 game trailers? Well that kind of stuff, but along many different online games).
When we met in person it was like we'd known each other for years because we had known each other for years.
I think the issue here could be related to the dissonance of seeing a face, the brain expecting eye contact, but being totally unable to get it because of technological limitations. Since the brain doesn't have any other "source of trust" for that face (be that the voice, past behavior/experiences, having met that person to being with) it clicks the "do not trust (entirely)" response.
Of course I'm not a psychologist/psychiatrist/neurological MD and I'm talking entirely from my experience.
Definitely. You only really need to meet once and the trust can be maintained for many months, or even years. There is just something about meeting in person that sets it up in a way that video calls can't easily match.
Ditto. I've been full-time remote for a decade. This slight continual erosion of trust is something I've often observed - and commented on, including here not too long ago. Online-only interaction might work great for the constrained and voluntary tasks in an MMO, but not so much for the work we do in our careers. Even teams renowned for their prowess at remote collaboration often seem to rely on periodic in-person "summits" to maintain those connections. Even among introverts, true comfort with long-term fully-remote interaction is an outlier.
It's funny that the original title for this article on CBC was actually "Zoom chats short circuit a brain function essential for trust: Don Pittis | CBC News" and the article only mentioned Zoom. :)
They changed the title and edited I guess after people pointed out that the research itself was not Zoom specific. I'm amazed how Zoom has become synonomous with "video conferencing" when there are so many other viable solutions available.
It's hard to say whether zoom would have seen this sort of traction without this pandemic.
With my own team, it won with one very important feature: the audio processing was better, which meant we didn't have to worry as much about muting or wearing headphones.
We wanted to use slack, but on linux you can't share a single window, and with three screens, that's out. Up until recently we couldn't use them for more than one person, anyway. Google meet was OK, but _required_ headphones. I ended up buying a nice expensive pair of headphones specifically because we were using google meet / hangouts / whatever. Otherwise, it was echoes all around.
With zoom, these things went away. It wasn't 100%, but it was damn near close for us. And this was with a technically savvy team in a software company. When it came to chatting with less savvy friends and family, it was an obvious choice for the same reasons.
This is a bit off-topic, but I can’t seem to use Zoom on my Ubuntu laptop with either Chrome or Firefox. As soon as I enter a call, it sucks up all the available memory until the tab, browser, or whole UI crashes. I can use jit.si or Google meetings with no problem. If anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.
I used that once, successfully. Then I reconfigured my system and uninstalled a particular input method, and the app refuses to run without it. So my comment was about the in-browser version. I know they all use the same browser APIs, so it's interesting that some work well but Zoom won’t work at all.
I’ve heard their name on NPR ads in Houston for years and even tried them once years ago but never knew of anyone else using them. I just assumed they were about the same as other solutions but were trying to ramp up with VC money.
I could see Zoom ending up like Kleenex or Jet Ski or Crock-Pot or Chapstick, where the brand name becomes the word for the thing itself.
Edit because I googled it for more examples and couldn't help myself: Tupperware, Band-Aids, Post-It, Slip n Slide, Xerox, Velcro, Weed Eater, Scotch Tape, Q-Tips, Rollerblades, Jacuzzi, Bubble Wrap.....
As a slight tangent, generic trademark names aren't always as generic the world over. I've never heard anyone ask for a Kleenex when the want a tissue, and from your further examples I assume a xerox is something to do with stationary or printing, and I couldn't tell you what a q-tip is without googling it.
A reverse example of something I use generically but has confused a number of people I talk to in the states is using "Hoover" to mean "vacuum cleaner". They're just called hoovers because the Hoover company made them at one point.
When the "Zoom bombing" trend hit the news, I expected that would be the beginning of the end for the company. They were having security issues due to an integral part of their platform's implementation at the same time that they were seeing an unprecedented increase in usage. Scaling and essentially rearchitecting at the same time, under load, is a huge challenge.
I'm very impressed that they've pulled through. If anything, Zoom has improved during the transition. That's not to say that I find it to be the best solution - I've had several videoconferencing/telepresence solutions work well for me in the past - but it's certainly "good enough" and they're in an enviable market position at this point.
In a few months, I'd love to see some retrospectives come out about how they did it from both the engineering and management perspectives.
My bet is a big part of the issue is webcams not being embedded in the screens. It's literally impossible to have eye contact because either you are looking at the webcam and not seeing other people, or you are looking at your screen. Many animals are very good at recognizing direct vs indirect eye contact and so I would assume the same is true for humans too.
Agree. The importance of eye contact cannot be overstated.
I have a 43" screen. I bought a very small but generic UVC camera on AliExpress. With this I can lower the camera down on the screen without be too obtrusive while dangling on the wire. This gives a really great result even if the change is just on my end. People seems much more "present".
I can only imagine how "real" it would feel if done on both ends.
Before this I was using an Elagato CamLink with a Canon EOS RP. While it gave a great quality image the offset position was not worth it. Furthermore it seems that most common video chat programs downsamples as noone saw a difference between this and a crappy 720 webcam even though it looked glorious on my end.
So have a go with a cheap small FHD UVC camera. It made wonders for me.
From a paper I wrote on the downsides of using video for mediation:
"The most important element of body language is eye contact. “Gaze is vital in the flow of natural communication, monitoring of feedback, regulating turn taking, and punctuating emotion. The lack of eye contact shows timidity, embarrassment, shyness, uncertainty and social awkwardness. (Edelmann and Hampson ).” Having a camera on top of a monitor, as the vast majority of video endpoints and laptops have, creates the appearance that participants are looking down. If you do look up into the camera, you aren’t looking at the other participant’s faces. Seeing someone look down makes them seem disinterested or even dishonest. Our minds are programmed to interpret looking down as gaze avoidance. Of all the problems with using videoconferencing for mediation, eye contact is the real show stopper. Again, corporate room-based systems mitigate this with multiple
special cameras and other technological tricks. There are some solutions in the pipeline but they will take a long time to “trickle down to the masses.”
The solution I have settled on is to have a webcam on top of an external monitor set up far enough away that you can't really tell that I am not looking directly at the lens. It would be so much better if Zoom allowed me to rearrange the video panels. My perfect video conferencing app for mediation would allow rearrangement of each video stream and have a simpler breakout room functionality.
That's interesting. If having a monitor above the monitor makes it seem like you are gazing down (timid) then is there anything about having the webcam near the bottom of the monitor (nose cam in dells or just putting a webcam below it on the desk)?
Before I clicked I wondered why you wouldn't be trying it. Understood, I suppose I won't be trying it either. Maybe there's a business idea here though, in pre-made special-case videochat boxes. I bet there are other optimizations to be made as well.
I think some(?) smartphones adjust your eyes via post processing to create the illusion of eye-contact when taking selfies, I wonder if this is fast enough to also do it with built-in webcams in laptops.
Thoughts on personalizing multi-group interactions.
A few years back, I worked at a big4 consulting firm. I would often fly into some 'what city is it today?' to meet with a company's team and often up to CxO in F500. Usually brought in because first few efforts internally failed hard. You can imagine meetings with engineering teams, with me starting out at 'below trust' bc it was top down. This means that even though I am CompSci by nature, our success hinged on personal interactions.
Here is what I highly suggest, and has worked wonders for me.
- Learn to talk. Get on calls early, do research on the attendants to try to find some common interests quickly. Think like a salesperson, trying to close the 'people' by being human, friendly. Edit: A good add on to this, is to find their 'pivot person' - a person on the call the team trusts (often a few people down the 'food chain').
- Make self-deprecating fun of yourself. I try to poke fun at myself very quickly to show humbling comedy - and I do it loudly. People like when you make them laugh. By making them laugh at me, no one's feelings are hurt. It gives their team a feeling of superiority, so you must be able to back it up with real firepower later to control.
- Try to take 'their team' side as often as possible. Assume every decision they've made is intelligent, and in good faith. You'd ask for the same.
- See how you can foster individual relationships. For their lead developer, "Hey I saw this about your stack/what we're doing/etc - and thought of you".
- Only 'do other things' on your computer during that meeting immediately related, and very short in duration.
- Don't argue with 'that argumentative, defensive engineer' around the other groups. "That's a really great point - can I call you after this?"
1. In my experience, I worked with a group that was adversarial until we began to use video conferencing and could see each other. The relationship became better after that (it was an internal validation group that was in another location). We could see each other and no quality of work was impacted. We ceased to be each other's boogeyman.
2. Many folks experienced video conferencing the first time at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which is not representative of normal times.
I reckon that this singular view isn't capturing a lot of things.
“Canadian research on "computer-mediated communication," begun long before the current lockdown, shows video chat is an inadequate substitute for real-life interaction. The real thing, dependant on non-verbal cues, is extraordinarily more effective in creating rapport and getting ideas across.”
I am a surgeon, hospitals are seizing the online video call as a new miracle cost saver. Whilst some consultations are OK for routine encounters eg organising tests, when it comes to discussing surgery most patients value seeing the surgeon.
My dad is a Physical Therapist, and believe it or not they are pushing for PTs to do telehealth. It kind of sounds like a pipe dream to me seeing as how hands-on the profession is. I mean a big part of the job is that you literally have to touch people and move their joints around for them.
I agree with this. If I needed a surgeon, I most certainly would not be using video as I do not have CT/X-ray/Ultrasound at home. I would love to have my own ultrasound. I predict some day there will be a low cost portable unit that allows people to upload ultrasound images in a standard format. Same goes for epigentic methylation. Today the equipment takes up half a room.
I have been getting voice mails daily from my doctors office to do a zoom call for a routine checkup. They appear desperate for business.
There's little doubt that face-to-face communication is more 'human' than video chat, and better for building rapport and intimacy.
But where is the evidence that video-only (or audio, or text) is bad for the workplace? It could actually be a 'leveler', and in fact better, if it reduces cliques, collusion, physical intimidation, etc, and therefore fosters more open and widespread collaboration.
I feel like any other tool, it largely depends on the context in which it's being used. I think that video chats are phenomenal in certain workplaces, or for certain people, and terrible in others. I've been in situations where half the team was offshore and it took a long time to build rapport because it's a lot more difficult to be casual while on calls - you want to get to the point while you're on a meeting, so you never get to chit chat with them the same way you would chit chat with the coworker you have right beside you.
But on the other side, I've also worked with people on the autism spectrum and noticed that interactions became a lot easier through video conference than in person. On my side at least, I tend to get thrown off a lot by out of place mannerisms so it was easier for me to communicate with them.
And as some other people have pointed out, there might be working environments where home working actually helps to avoid/reduce tension/intimidation/toxic relationships etc.
Edit: also worth mentioning that my husband and I met and fell in love after skyping for many years (we lived in different continents) and I'm certainly not the only one...
I wonder how much of this is 2D/3D and a feeling of “presence.” Anecdotally, I’ve been playing various games in VR with friends & family and it just feels so much more like I’m there. I’d be interested to see research on building trust in virtual 3D environments vs. 2D video chat.
Also, the email vs. in-person donation research didn’t make sense to me. Of course someone that asks you for a donation in-person will get a higher response. However, the reason would be social pressures, reciprocity and/or conformity rather than anything inherent to physical presence.
My instinct is that stereoscopic vision is a big part of facial awareness. Simply moving it to 3D with virtual avatars wouldn't be enough, though - I think it's probably more about consciously imperceptible social cues.
If those cues could be identified, maybe you could point a high-res camera pointed at the person to capture them and then reproduce them on their VR avatar. I doubt the science is there, though.
In a default video app you struggle to see everyone, only one speaker can be heard clearly and usually there's audio/video sync issues. Add a sprinkle of bad hardware and suddenly it's more like talking to a robot over dialup than any semblance of a conversation.
On the other hand, have the participants use good hardware, high quality connections and fix the audio issues and the problems greatly get reduced.
Anecdotally, comparing my work meetings to my video-chat social calls seems to reinforce this. Work folks typically use just their laptop and have questionable wireless, and we use Google Meet which seems to get worse with every update especially on the audio front. Meanwhile the social group is primarily streamers with high end cameras and microphones and better networking, which when combined with Discords significantly improved audio muxing dramatically improves call quality and reduces "Zoom fatigue".
I do wonder whether video calls have become the next reading, television or video games - this horror that will destroy people's brains. It all feels rather reactionary. Surely different forms of communication work for different people in different circumstances. We can't make these wide pronouncements.
I've noticed that it takes a different effort to communicate digitally than in-person. I can talk to a person in a car as I drive, no problem. But talk (even hands-free) over a phone and it takes a lot more attention. As accident statistics point out.
Why is this? I think we're wired to interact in-person. When we try to talk to a person we can't sense directly, we have to build a brain model of them. That takes quite a bit more effort.
As an experiment I tried putting my hand up to block my passenger from view as I drove. Immediately I could tell I was paying less attention to the road, vividly. Just having them out of view, even peripherally, made for a different experience.
For driving-and-talking specifically, I remember reading somewhere that when you need to pause for a second and focus on driving, it’s obvious why to a passenger and they can preemptively stop talking, but not obvious to someone on the phone. The person on the phone has no context and will keep talking in your ear as you try to maneuver through a stressful situation.
this is slightly different from the problem of not seeing someone, but the fact that video chat software demands a walkie-talkie style "you talk, then I talk, then you talk" style of conversation is very difficult. Normal human conversation includes a lot of natural (and sometimes productive) cross-talk.
Agreed! I was part of a product team that build Sococo Teamspace, including a video chat that allowed interruption. Everybody could talk at once, and still hear everyone else. It made an amazing difference.
At an internal event back in February (in the before times), we had a videographer come through asking questions. She asked me "What did you learn this week?"
My response: "I learned how tall everyone is! On Zoom, everyone is the same height!"
Unfortunately, it didn't make the highlight video. :)
But the serious side of it is that if 100% of our interactions are from the chest up, we lose a ton of body language context and physical expressions. With everyone muted, you miss out on verbal cues too. We're missing layers/nuance of communication but it's hard to tell if those are 1%, 25%, 50%, or 95% of the interaction.
I think there is a lot more that video apps can do to take the edge off or to make people feel more comfortable in meetings. Right now I think most tools are very rudimentary.
Full disclosure, I work for https://team.video and we're trying to make meetings more enjoyable. Just simple things like having built in agendas, games, and non-verbal feedback I think can go a long way to making a remote meeting way less painful and help build trust among your colleagues.
I think there is something to this. I can't quite make the leap to "video chats short circuit a brain function essential for trust." but I do think we miss out on a lot, or maybe some tend to be dismissive.
I think it may be easier to be dismissive in a video chat, but I'd suspect those who are would tend to be so anyway, just behind your back, not face to face in the meeting.
Couldn't help but wonder whether stereoscopic cameras might affect this somehow, and it would be interesting to hear anecdotes of whether that makes a difference.
Orthogonaly, I worked in an environment some years ago that had zoom sessions in %90 of all meetings, and the trust level between teams on zoom was low. There were company culture reasons for it, as arguably internecine conflict is necessarily a leadership gap, but the zoom medium itself advantaged misrepresentation in a way that email, slack and even conference calls did not. The difference between video and audio calls was that with just audio, someone cannot use their counterparty's isolation to lie because they can't be sure there is nobody else there. On ephemeral video, someone in an empty room is already atomized, and the power dynamic changes. I remember reading a bunch of critical theory about art from the 80's and 90's about the effect of framing, the gaze of the camera, the relationship between subjects and observers, and how people relate to images.
When you are on camera and seeing yourself reflected in a screen without a lot of fidelity, it creates a feeling of uncannyness, and you are made self-conscious, which has consequences to the power dynamic of the conversation. It can set up perfect storm conditions for people whose personalities are given to reflexive or defensive lies.
We behave differently when they are being observed or recorded. I used to always use the camera, but since the lockdown, I have been dialing in to conferences because the uncertainty of the audio connection is leveling. For personal acquaintences, I use the camera, but if there is a power difference, I use audio.
The uncanny effect of video causing self consciousness that brings out defensive traits, which cause mistrust in relationships could just be an "uncanny valley," effect, hence my initial question of whether stereoscopic cameras might change the effect, or maybe exacerbate it. It's also possible that offsetting your camera angle so that you both are being seen to view the same thing from different angles, as though you are discussing some third party object, might improve comfort levels instead of the dead-on positioning of laptop cameras. If I stared at my dog the way people look into their cameras, he'd eventually attack me or someone else, it's possible the camera positioning we use for video conferencing creates the same kind of confrontational/defensive frame.
A portrait photographer could have some insight into this I'm sure.