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The Spectator’s guide to video conference etiquette

The video call is digital Darwinism: make sure you aren’t the silenced

March 20, 2020

1:53 PM

20 March 2020

1:53 PM

Video conferences are like all business meetings — 95 percent pointless and usually arranged and dominated by some self-important twerp. Still, humans attach strange importance to management habits and, now that we are living in the age of the coronavirus, many of us will have to do a lot more video conferences for work. Ever the public servant, Cockburn has compiled the following guide to video conference etiquette.

1) Dress

Cockburn prefers formal attire, yet in times of isolation, the rules can be relaxed. Nudity is too much, no matter how matter impressive one’s physique. Pajamas are a no-no, too. Sporting a kaftan on the call may make you feel like a charismatic tech billionaire dialing in from Mustique. But everybody knows you aren’t — so put a shirt on. We don’t need to know if you are totally starkers below the table.

2) Nose picking is verboten

Not only is it dangerous in a respiratory health crisis, it is disgusting.

3) Don’t pout at yourself, narcissist!

Yes we can see that you like looking at yourself in your screen but this isn’t your morning vanity session. Applying make-up is even more obnoxious — you aren’t an influencer and this isn’t Instagram. If you can’t stop staring at your own image, close the window or move away from the camera.

4) Eating

Probably best avoided — though a snack or piece of fruit is acceptable, as long as you can close your mouth while chewing. Cooking or preparing a full meal while saying ‘how about we take a step back here guys …’ may make you feel like a master of the new universe — but it can go badly wrong if you burn yourself or set off the fire alarm.

5) Backdrop

Always think before you start a call: what is behind me? Does it show how interesting and original I am? Heaving bookshelves are ideal — especially if they can hint at some intellectual hinterland: a handsome and complete set of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, say, or À la recherche du temps perdu (in French).


Alternatively, a bit of moody art can work just as well. Avoid crude motivational slogans (‘It never gets any easier. You just keep getting stronger.’) These suggest you need reminders to try hard. Sensitive artistic erotica is fine — adolescent babe/hunk pictures probably best taken down.

6) Communal laughing

If somebody makes a joke in a video conference — no matter how bad — the done thing is to laugh loud and long. Imagine you are a sidekick on an over-caffeinated breakfast radio show. Do not be the one staring stone-faced at the screen while every other video-face chuckles.

If you have stopped listening, just wait till you hear laughter and laugh along. Be sure to stop laughing by the time the conversation has moved on.

7) Alcohol

Depends on the boss. Play it by ear — or eye. If you are on a conference in a different time zone, just say ‘it’s getting late here’ as you pour yourself a glass of wine — this will make you look professional in your downtime, even if it is actually 10.45 a.m. If you need to refill, maybe do so out of shot. Cockburn pro-tip: tilt the glass to avoid a noisy pour.

8) Blame the tech

If in doubt, blame the internet/screen/computer/app. If you have a terrible attention span, just sound frustrated and say: ‘It keeps buffering’.

Equally, if your office rival is on a roll, spoil his flow by pretending there is a connection problem: ‘Sorry I lost you there David…sorry David…David? David?’

If David still somehow manages to make his point over your protestations, wait a moment and say: ‘Sorry David I didn’t catch a word of that.’

9) Animal/child diversion

Never work with pets and children, say people in television. But Cockburn thinks a dog, cat or child can be a useful attention-grabbing move in a video conference. If, for instance, David is getting into his stride again as he scales those projected growth figures, suddenly shout ‘SIT! I SAID SIT DOWN! DOWN!’ as violently as you can. This should stun the call into silence. Then disappear and return quickly clutching adorable animal in fond embrace. ‘Sorry guys this is Barney/Boris/Dilyn’. Let the ‘awwwws’ fade out and get back to business: ‘Right, where were we … David?’

David will carry on but everyone knows you have burst his bubble.

Children can be similarly employed but must be well-trained.

10) Interrupting

With split-screen technology, interruptions are inevitable. So go bold. If you feel you may have interrupted somebody, don’t stop, whatever you do — that shows weakness. The video call is digital Darwinism: make sure you aren’t the silenced. Or, if you run out of things to say while talking, try what Cockburn calls the ‘reverse-interruption’, a classic diversionary technique for career bluffers. If you lose track of what you are saying, turn on the least vocal person on the call: ‘Amanda, I think I interrupted you there.’ If Amanda says she wasn’t saying anything, double down with: ‘Oh, I see, right…’ and leave an awkward silence while everyone contemplates Amanda’s failure to contribute. Sorry Amanda — but the virtual rat race has no time for quiet mice.

11) DO NOT attempt to urinate during a video call

You may think you can get away with it by muting/changing screen but if you make a mistake, you will never live it down. Unless, of course, you are a genuinely terrifying boss — then a noisy micturition can demonstrate your awesome power. Wait for David to start talking again, turn the volume up, and go for it.


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