Video Etiquette 101

Video conferences have become such a big part of the work day during this coronavirus pandemic period.  For me, at least, video calls emerged abruptly, and went from a once-in-a-while thing to a routine, several times a day occurrence.  And now, nobody seems to use regular phone calls anymore.

video-conferencing-01-as-rt-200327_hpmain_16x9t_608But the thing about video calls is that they don’t seem to have a standard, accepted etiquette yet.  Their sudden burst onto the daily work scene means we’re still thrashing around and trying to figure out how to behave.  As a result, you wonder how you are supposed to deal with certain issues that are presented by videoconferences.  With people having heightened sensitivity during this whole weird period we are in, you don’t want to unwittingly be rude, crude, and socially unacceptable, or otherwise give offense.   And muddling through doesn’t seem like a really wise, viable option.

For example, when you get a video call, do you always answer with your video enabled?  Is it considered rude or a kind of affront not to do so?  What if the person who calls turns out not to have their video enabled?  Should you immediately conform to the video-enabling practices of the caller, or is the act of disabling, with no apparent technical reason for doing so, itself considered impolite?  And if you don’t have the video enabled, is the well-mannered course to explain why — or is that just wasting people’s time?

The fact that these video conferences are occurring from people’s homes adds another layer of potential faux pas to the mix.  Is it acceptable to ask where the person you are talking to is, or comment on the background, or is that considered really intrusive?  If kids, spouses, or pets appear in the picture, are you supposed to comment, or act like you haven’t seen them?  If someone is totally backlit and you can’t see their face, do you say something or hold your tongue?  Is it considered appropriate to ask somebody to move to a different location or adjust their screen so that their face is more visible, or is that unforgivably untoward?

Where is the modern-day Emily Post, ready to instruct us on the dos and don’ts of the new situations that are being created by technological advancements?  It sure would be helpful to have somebody give us some instruction on this stuff.

 

 

Bluetooth In The Bathroom

I’m not a big fan of Bluetooth earpiece devices.  I’m not talking about whether the technology works well or not; I just think it creates too many awkward situations.

How many times do you walk around a public area — airports in particular — see someone who appears to be talking vigorously to themselves, and decide to give them a wide berth?  You do so because long experience has trained you that people who talk to themselves are probably dangerous lunatics, and the last thing in the world you want to do is enter their field of vision and become the focus of their deranged rantings.  Bluetooth devices have interfered with that crucial modern survival instinct.  Now you don’t know whether the self-talking person is a nut or a Bluetoother, talking louder than is necessary because that’s just what Bluetooth users always do.

The worst scenario for this is the public restroom.  If you’re a guy standing at a urinal, you don’t want to make eye contract, have a conversation, or otherwise engage in any form of human interaction whatsoever.  So, when a person who at first appears to be talking to himself shoulders his way into the urinal next door, apparently flouting every known rule of male bathroom etiquette, it’s a cause for concern.  You feel that initial sinking feeling, only to later realize that it’s just jerky Bluetoother who is still flouting accepted norms — and also consciously demonstrating for all to see that their call is so important that it can’t wait until after they answer the call of nature.

I’m reconciled to the fact that Bluetooth earpieces and those hanging string-like microphone devices are here to stay.  It’s too bad, because they make public areas like airports gates a babbling cacaphony.  But can’t we all agree to keep them out of the bathroom, for goodness’ sake?

Smartphone Etiquette

I’m guessing that the advent of the smartphone has created the most etiquette questions since the invention of the soup spoon and salad fork.

If you are in a social gathering, when is it appropriate to accept a call?  If you are in a multi-person business meeting, is it proper to check your email or send a quick text?  I’m not sure what the rules are anymore, and if there are rules they seem to be routinely ignored. Recently I was out at lunch and saw four women at the next table over, all silently texting to other people as they sat together over coffee.  They looked happy enough, but . . . really?

IMG_4780It’s a social issue caused by technological innovation.  During the land-line days of yore, people didn’t have to worry about a phone in their pocket ringing during lunch.  When written communications were limited to letters, you couldn’t just touch an icon on an ever-present electronic device to catch up on your friends’ latest ruminations.

Etiquette is all about establishing rules so that people are comfortable, and not offended, in everyday settings — so I think of how I feel, for example, when I am in a store waiting to check out and the clerk takes a phone call rather than completing my transaction.  I’m there, I’m ready to buy, and I get treated like second-hand news in favor of an unknown phone call?  It’s not a happy feeling that’s likely to make me want to go back to that place.  My baseline rule, therefore, is to try to give undivided attention to the people I’m with, no matter how many beeps and bloops my phone might make while we’re together.  I figure there is plenty of time to check on emails, texts, and updates when the gathering ends.  And if I’m expecting an important call that I can’t miss, I try to explain that possibility up front, so the people I’m with don’t think they are playing second fiddle to any random caller.

Cell phones are handy, but they can be a recipe for rudeness if we’re not careful.

When Can You Just Let Electronic Conversations End?

I wasn’t great with the traditional etiquette of the Emily Post and Miss Manners variety, but I’m hopelessly mystified by the challenge of the proper rules of etiquette for our digital age.

Consider electronic writing — emails and texts — for example.  In the old days, when you wrote a letter to a friend, you expected that someday you would get a letter in response.  Do the same rules apply to email and texts?  With email and texting being virtually instantaneous, is there an expected response time after which you need to apologize and offer a reason for not responding sooner?  In my view, often the speed of a response isn’t as important as getting an answer that is thoughtful — and thoughtfulness usually takes time.  But if I’m infuriating someone because I haven’t responded within two hours, I’d sure like to know that.

When can you just let an electronic conversation end, and when do you have to respond with yet another message?  If I send an email and get a response that is completely satisfactory, is it rude to not respond with a “Thanks!”?  It seems silly to constantly be sending “Thanks!” emails, but I’ll do it if that is the expected etiquette these days.  For that matter, if you go with the “Thanks!” response, must you include the exclamation point?  And is it dismissive or demeaning if you go with “thx” rather than the full, written out “Thanks!”?

I pose such questions because I really want to know if I am inadvertently being a thoughtless jerk in my handling of these nettlesome electronic conversations.  If I’m going to be a thoughtless jerk, I’d rather do so intentionally.

Hummers, Blockers, And Baggage Wranglers

Whenever you travel by plane, you’re inevitably going to be introduced to certain personality types that make air travel so . . . interesting.  Here are three that I experienced in my recent journeys:

The Hummer.  On one flight I sat next to a man who hummed constantly.  I’m sure he wasn’t aware he was doing it, and he probably also wasn’t aware that he couldn’t carry a tune in a sealed Tupperware container.  His dissonant humming — what song was it, for God’s sake? — quickly became as annoying as the buzzing of a persistent fly that ignores repeated swatting attempts.  I debated whether it would be polite to ask him, through gritted teeth, to please stop humming.  Fortunately, he fell asleep.  Never were snores so welcome!

Blockers.  Blockers are those distasteful folks who, as soon as the plane arrives at the gate, spring from their seats and consciously block the other side of the aisle as they remove their luggage from the overhead bins.  If you wait politely for them to move aside so you can get out and get your bags, some do — but more often these selfish turds will put their luggage down in the aisle and expand their blocking zone.  On one flight a female blocker had her roller bag extended behind her, blocking two rows, and was talking loudly on her cell phone to boot.  From the murderous looks of fellow passengers, I’m confident I was not the only person to conclude that the woman was a misanthropic, self-important jerk who, in any just world, would suffer an embarrassing, ego-puncturing pratfall as she exited the plane.

Baggage Wranglers.  Baggage wranglers waddle onto the plane overloaded with carry-on materials.  They blithely ignore the “two carry-on items” rule — the most unenforced rule in the history of the world — and thrash down the aisle, bags banging against headrests and roller bags jamming against seats.  If you are in an aisle seat, beware:  baggage wranglers are oblivious to your existence as they search for precious overhead space to store one of their 50 carry-on items.  My knees and shoulders were clouted repeatedly by over-stuffed gym bags, full-to-bursting plastic sacks, and laptop cases during the boarding process for my flights, without a single apology from the clods carrying them.

Most Americans seem to be decent, polite people.  Why do those qualities so often seem to be left behind when people travel?

Facebook Giveth, And Facebook Taketh Away (II)

Facebook often seems like a double-edged sword, and a sharp one at that.

There are some people you wish you hadn’t lost touch with, but — due to laziness or disorganization or the demands of your current life — you did.  Friday night Kish and I got together with an old friend we hadn’t seen him in years and had a wonderful time.  (Thanks, Action!)  It would not have happened without Facebook; that’s where we reconnected and communicated about getting together.

But there are negatives, too.  Sometimes Facebook causes you to learn more about people than you really want to know.  Perhaps their posted political, religious, or social views deeply offend you, and then you have to decide whether the situation merits “de-friending” the person.  People really seem to struggle with that decision — and when you think about it, it’s really a new kind of social decision.

In the past you might never have learned that your co-worker or second cousin harbored beliefs that you find upsetting.  Your interactions may never have gotten beyond superficial talk about sports or TV shows.  Ignorance was bliss!  But now, thanks to their airing of views on Facebook, you know.

To be sure, in days of yore people obviously made decisions not to pursue certain friendships.  That process typically involved just avoiding the offending person and letting time and distance work their magic.  With Facebook, that approach no longer works, because exposure to those offensive views is unaffected by physical distance.

The “de-friending” process also has a formality and finality to it that old-fashioned avoidance did not.  If you were the unlucky object of an avoidance campaign, you could always rationalize that you lost touch with someone purely by happenstance and not because they can’t bear the sight of you.  With “de-friending,” however, you know for certain.  Once you were a “friend,” now you’re not — and if the list of the de-friender’s remaining friends is long, getting cut from the roster has a special sting.

People who announce de-friending decisions seem to treat the decisions as momentous ones.  I don’t blame them.  In the old days, you typically had to make public breaks only with unsuccessful boyfriends and girlfriends, and you had to cope with the hurt feelings only from those people.  Now, the “de-friended” person may be a co-worker or family member, and you’ve got to deal with the fallout from your decision in a totally different context.

Manners and etiquette developed to help people deal in an appropriate way with standardized social situations.  I won’t be surprised if the Facebook generation’s version of Emily Post comes up with the proper etiquette for handling a “de-friending” incident.

There’s a lot of social change rolled up into that one website.

The Blowhard Next Door

Have you ever had an otherwise pleasant dining experience marred by the fact that you sat next to some blowhard?  It happened to us last night.

I didn’t notice the couple when we passed their table and were seated at the next table over.  As soon as we were seated, however, I heard the guy’s droning nasal voice yammering non-stop, with nary an interruption from his unfortunate dining companion.  I tried hard to tune it out — really, I did — but his voice was so loud and insistent in explaining some mind-numbing workplace occurrence that it kept intruding into our dinner table conversation.  I think he was a professor or literary type; at one point he actually held forth on how quotation marks should always precede punctuation marks.  (Seriously!)  This tweedy tool was so dull and self-absorbed he could have bored his own mother.

When the couple finally left it was a relief, but there was one last moment of interest.  As they were gathering their things, the guy, perhaps experiencing a faint moment of self-awareness, finally asked the woman a question, about one of her friends.  When she said the friend had been on a respirator for 45 days — I swear I am not making this up! the guy didn’t know what to say, so he muttered something, then said, brightly, “let’s do it again soon!”

I sat with my back to the couple and I never turned around, although I was tempted.  I’m not sure what the appropriate etiquette is in that situation, although I expect it doesn’t involve telling the Leaden Professor to shut his yap and stop boring the entire restaurant with his dim-witted yakking.

In Defense Of Spitting

In America, spitting is frowned upon, unless you are in the dentist’s chair and have just been handed a cup of mouthwash or are participating in a watermelon-eating contest.  My grandmother called spitting a “filthy habit.”  It is flatly contrary to the rules of etiquette and the norms of polite society.  Still, people keep doing it.  Earlier this year, for example, Tiger Woods was ripped by commentators and viewers, and then fined, for spitting on the golf course, and he later apologized for his “inconsiderate” behavior.

I think people keep spitting because our mouths are a very effective spit-ejection device, and spitting actually feels pretty good.  Your mouth and tongue taste foul and rank and then, suddenly, they don’t anymore.  In some cultures, spitting is much more common, and in others spitting is considered to be a way to ward off the “Evil Eye” and evil spirits.  (Apparently evil spirits have very tender sensibilities about the act of returning moisture to the environment.)  There is an innate, childlike pleasure in spitting, too.  You feel the exquisite, gathering heaviness of the saliva swirling on your tongue before you are ready to launch.  You can go for distance or work on accuracy.  And you know it’s naughty, bad boy behavior — which just makes it a bit more fun.

I’m not suggesting that people should spit on or at each other, or go around spitting on public streets as a matter of routine.  I’m just saying that, in the right place and at the right time, there is nothing quite so satisfying as a good spit.

Hats Off

Here’s a significant difference between men and women:  men could never spend hours discussing whether wearing a white hat to a wedding is appropriate.

Three of my favorite women in the world have spent the last hour or so researching the issue, consulting etiquette websites, analyzing whether the size and shape of the hat is relevant, and carefully discussing the pros and cons of wearing a white hat to a summer wedding.  I’m afraid I haven’t had much to add to the conversation.

I think it is safe to say that few men would have the patience to scrupulously assess the white hat issue.  On the other hand, many women probably would lack the interest to engage in a sustained discussion of whether the addition of more play-in games to this year’s NCAA Tournament is a positive development, or whether the many time-travel paradox questions raised by Terminator 2:  Judgment Day make the movie’s premise impossible.

Recession Etiquette

I recently learned that a relative lost his job. Under those circumstances, is it appropriate to reach out to the person, to encourage them and let them know that they are in your thoughts? Or, would such an act cause them to think that everyone was talking about their misfortune, and to be embarrassed as a result? As the downturn continues, and more people lose their jobs, these kinds of questions of etiquette necessarily arise. If you know someone who has lost their job and is looking for a new one, should you ask them how the job search is going whenever you see them? If you don’t, will they think you don’t care about their difficulties and are ignoring what may be the most important issue in their lives? If you do, will they think you are touching on a sore spot, when they were hoping for a social get-together that could take their mind off their troubles? If you go out together, should you insist on paying in recognition of their hardship, or would that be considered patronizing?

I’m not sure that there is one right answer to these questions. I do know this — with the kinds of layoffs we have been reading about, and experiencing in our own families, everyone is dealing with these kinds of issues, which require a deft social touch and sensitivity. If you feel like you must tiptoe around land mines in your normal, daily interactions with friends and family, it just adds another layer of stress and concern on top of the more generalized stress and concern about how things are going.