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Title

An Emerging New Etiquette

Will Zoom change the etiquette of meetings?

March 30, 2020
 
 

Each time a new communications technology gains a foothold, we refer to it as a medium. (Old joke: that’s because it’s neither rare nor well done.) The term isn’t quite right, though; it implies that the tech is a neutral conduit, simply a new way of conveying what was already there. Over time, media shape content.

For example, part of what allowed jazz to move from three-minute songs to much longer explorations and suites was the rise of the LP. Suddenly, you could fit over 20 minutes of music on one side of a record; you weren’t limited to what a 78 or a 45 could hold. “Kind of Blue” would not have been possible before the LP. (The causal arrow runs the other way, too; a common story has it that the amount of data that could fit on a CD was determined by the length of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. I don’t know if that’s true, but I want it to be.)

The same is true in visual media. Early movies often took the form of filmed plays, but over time, directors started to discover and exploit the affordances of cameras. Television changed markedly when it didn’t all have to be “live.” As the underlying technology has advanced, video games have evolved beyond my Generation X recognition. Each new technology has given rise to new expectations.

Which brings me to Zoom.

In-person meetings have been around for quite a while, and they have fairly well established (if evolving) codes of etiquette. Most workplaces develop norms around in-person meetings. Those norms entail who sits where, who is allowed to be late, how people address each other, who’s allowed to voice dissent and in what ways, and even issues as basic as when the meetings start and how long they last. I’ve been around long enough to see expectations around technology in meetings evolve; it once would have been considered rude, if not unprofessional, to check one’s email during a meeting. Now, as long as it’s done discreetly, it’s often accepted.

Over the past few weeks, the industry as a whole has shifted, abruptly and with little warning, to large-scale videoconferencing over Zoom. I’m glad the tool exists, and I’m also glad that we’re all pretty much learning it at the same time. There’s a sort of hall pass for clumsiness right now. We’re at the stage of early filmmakers, mostly using the tech to do what we were doing before, but at a distance. We’re essentially filming plays.

That’s a normal and expected developmental stage, but it will pass. I’m curious to see how the etiquette and expectations will evolve now that so many of us are using the technology for nearly everything.

For example, although many campus meetings with senior leadership involve the men wearing ties, none of us has worn a tie in any of these meetings. I’m content with that, having been anti-tie pretty much forever. If video conferencing does to ties what JFK did to men’s hats, I’m on board. Frankly, I’d trade ties for hats at this point. We all seem to have accepted that working from home allows for somewhat less formal attire. I’d be happy to see that change hold up over time.

So far, Zoom meetings tend to start closer to on time and to finish closer to on time. I’m guessing that the latter is a function of the former, which, in turn, is at least partially a function of not having to factor in transportation time. Some people are just awful at estimating how long it will take to get from point A to point B. I’ve worked for people who thought nothing of having people sit in a room and wait for them for 20 minutes, but I haven’t seen that online, at least so far. My characteristic promptness has gone from quirky to normal without my having changed. I consider this a sign of social progress.

The etiquette around background visuals is very much in flux. How much whimsy is allowed in choosing backgrounds? Or, if you go unfiltered, what’s appropriate to have behind you? I was recently in a meeting in which one person seemed to be in his basement, judging by the wood paneling, bar, electric guitar and Ramones poster. I smiled at it, but it raised some larger questions.

Of course, pets and kids have a way of wandering in, too. I’ll admit enjoying both, if the interruptions are brief. Sally crashed a couple of meetings last week, both briefly, and I didn’t have pangs of guilt about it. Some colleagues had dogs, cats or babies make cameos. In the context of a tense discussion, a little of that can bring helpful comic relief.

I hosted a relatively large group discussion last week in which we used “mute all” and the “raise hand” function to keep the dialogue moving. Among other things, I quickly discovered that the “raise hand” function doesn’t move raised hands to the top of the queue; the host has to constantly scroll up and down to see whose hand is raised. This strikes me as an easily fixed design flaw, but a design flaw nonetheless. In a classroom or meeting room, it’s easy to see whose hand is raised. If you can’t see whose hand is raised, you’ve defeated the purpose.

Still, these are basic, first-level issues. As Zoom (or any similar technology) becomes more commonplace, the etiquette is likely to evolve. We won’t film plays forever.

Wise and worldly readers, are you seeing Zoom (or Skype, or FaceTime, or …) etiquette move in unexpected directions?

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