Work

“I Can’t Be Surprised Like This Again”

When you have “tall Zoom energy” and show up to the office for the first time, it can get awkward.

A videoconference window featuring three faces in boxes with cartoon legs of different heights under them
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

One day this summer, Maggie Dewane received an unexpected compliment: An intern at the Washington think tank where she works told her that she had “tall person energy.”

The two had never met in person. Like many white-collar workers, they were doing their jobs remotely and had only interacted in the Brady Bunch–style grids of videoconferencing. Dewane, who is 5-foot-4, was frankly thrilled that someone thought she seemed like a tall person. “I was just so taken aback,” Dewane said.

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Tall person energy, also sometimes called “tall Zoom energy,” has been a topic of conversation in recent months as co-workers who first got to know one another through screens have gradually been meeting in person. If you haven’t had this experience yet, you probably will soon: Employees are continuing to trickle back into their IRL workplaces, albeit slower than initially expected this fall. And when they get there, they’re making the sometimes-awkward discovery that the disembodied heads they got used to chatting with belong to three-dimensional people—people who stand at a wide variety of heights.

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Soolgi Hong, a 25-year-old communications professional in Washington, started her current job in October 2020, when her firm was operating fully remotely. So it was a huge deal when she finally met a co-worker, someone senior to her at the company, in person on a flight from Los Angeles a few months ago. The meeting was made all the more dramatic when Hong, who is 5-foot-3, realized that her colleague was shorter than her.

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“I’m short, so I just kind of expect everyone to be taller than me,” she said. “I think at some level, you expect people who are higher up than you in the company to be taller than you too.”

Hong ended up asking her co-worker to fill her in on everyone else’s height. “I was like, ‘I can’t be surprised like this again.’ We had our five-hour flight back to D.C. together, so we could really run through the list of everyone.”

There are a few ways these in-person meetings can go. The best-case scenario is that if you tell your co-workers that you thought they had tall Zoom energy, they will be flattered.

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Editor Joanna Nelius, for example, is 4-foot-11, and she loves when people tell her she seems taller on screen. “Usually I’ll follow up with an ‘Oh my God, thank you!’ ” she said, “because to me, it means I have confidence or I come across in an authoritative way, but not being a jerk about it.”

For Hong, it lands somewhere in the middle. “I do think that height definitely—the halo effect helps you seem more put together and more confident and more in charge,” she said. But “it’s weirdly a compliment but also a slight dig. It’s a backhanded compliment in a way, because your height shouldn’t matter at all, but then you’re weirdly comforted that people think you’re taller.”

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And then telling someone that he or she seemed tall might just emphasize that they are, in fact, not: “The other side of that is ‘Hey, you’re shorter than I thought you were,’ ” said Nicholas Rule, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s two sides of the same coin. I’m not sure how I would feel about that. Are you suggesting I’m some kind of Napoleon? I have a bigger personality than my body? I’m outsized for who I really am?”

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If you go by some research Rule conducted, the concept of “tall Zoom energy” may be a bit of a white lie much of the time. He did a study a few years ago where he showed participants photos of people’s faces and asked them to guess the heights of the people in the photos. “We found a really high correspondence between people’s ability to tell how tall the people actually were,” he said. “The judgments are within an inch. This is just from a black-and-white picture of someone’s face. It was pretty incredible.”

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I decided to talk to one of my new co-workers, podcast producer Davis Land, about this, because he started at Slate during the pandemic, works remotely from Houston, and has never met anyone on his team in person. He said it had occasionally come up in meetings: “ ‘We all have no idea how tall Davis is,’ ” a co-worker might say.

“I perceive most people to be about my height,” he told me. “When I look at all of the Zoom boxes and I have my video on, all of us are the same height basically.”

As an informal experiment, I asked some of the people Land works with most closely to guess his height. He’s 5-foot-11, for the record, and everyone I asked was pretty close. My co-workers seemed to bear out Rule’s findings.

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Still, Land said that the topic was a little uncomfortable: “Having somebody guess your height and then hearing them say something that is totally out of the park, you confront the reality that other people’s mental models of yourself are not who you actually are,” he said. “There’s an uncanniness there.”

Rule, the professor, said that many of people’s beliefs about height seem to be baked into human nature.

“If [people] see someone who’s tall, they regard them as being higher in status. And if they see someone that they regard as being higher in status, they assume that they’re tall,” he said.

And indeed, it can be hard to fight evolutionary psychology. For example, when Albert Eiffes, a 6-foot-4, 38-year-old project manager in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, went into his office one day earlier this year, he found it hard to focus on anything but the height of one of his co-workers.

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“This co-worker, I had never met him in person,” he said. “Mentally, he was my height. And then I get there and meet him for the first time in person. He’s a shorter man, which is completely irrelevant to what we do at work—it has nothing to do with anything in the workplace or in a professional setting—but it just didn’t click.”

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“There were so many lizard-brain things that didn’t work with that,” he continued. “I’m like, Wait. But he’s in a higher position than me in the job. I felt really silly about it. This is a person who I really had been getting along with very well and still do and who I work with every day. I could not get the primordial parts to shut up. We were trying to talk about a multimillion-dollar project, and I can’t get over ‘But he doesn’t look like he looks!’ ”

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People can be weird about you being shorter than they thought, but they can also be weird about you being taller. Kate Lane, a 46-year-old user experience designer in Providence, Rhode Island, runs fiction writing groups in her spare time. When one of the groups got together in person recently, Lane, who is 5-foot-9, noticed that some of the men seemed unpleasantly surprised by her height. “The vibe changes,” she said. “There’s a little bit of intimidation that creeps in.” She said that some men brought it up multiple times throughout the get-together.

“I find it a little tiresome to have these men who I know pretty well—for them to get hung up on this, it’s a little disappointing. This makes no difference. And now you have some sort of issue, and your insecurity is showing, and I have to deal with it?”

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Lane said that she preferred conducting the writing group remotely in part to avoid such distractions. “Our writing group has definitely benefited from Zoom,” she said. “I think that’s why we’re still going strong. It’s an energy thing too. The bigger guys will just dominate the room sometimes when we’re all in there together.”

Nelius, the under-5-foot editor, said she has also liked having her height be less of a factor in her work. “It’s been really nice over Zoom not to have the first thing that somebody says to me is ‘Wow, you’re so short,’ ” she said. “In journalism, I think having that tall physical presence when you’re interviewing somebody or you’re at a protest or something, subconsciously that lends to more credibility. Some people don’t take shorter people very seriously.”

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On the other end of the height spectrum, very tall people have also been able to benefit from being able to stand out less on Zoom.

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“I have actually loved the freedom to just be seated and presented as my authentic self and just engaging without having to deal with preconceived notions about what I might be like just because of my height,” said Kacy Karlen, the head of global communications for a large company in Boston, who is 6-foot-3. “It’s almost like getting to go undercover.”

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Karlen got a new boss during the pandemic, and when we spoke, she said they were planning to meet in person for the first time soon, which made Karlen feel like she should prepare her boss. “I found myself reflexively explaining, ‘By the way, when we meet up, I just want to let you know, I’m really, really tall,’ ” she said.

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Of course, there are times when tall people also miss the subtle advantages their height affords them.

Laura DeWitt, a 39-year-old teacher in New York who is 5-foot-10, said she went through the whole 2020–21 school year without meeting her students. “In terms of the height, sometimes it felt like a silly little secret, particularly in terms of connecting with the kids,” she said. “I think that because they didn’t have the perception of me physically in the room as a tall person, I think some of them related to me differently than they might have otherwise. For me, it was kind of a little smile to myself, like, ‘Oh, when you see me in person you won’t run your mouth like that.’ ”

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