‘The main purpose of a teleconference is to provide protected time to answer emails.’1 This flippant comment was written a few years ago, but teleconference etiquette has not matured substantially since then. I have to admit I sometimes do my emails when I am not chairing the teleconference, but I dread the moment when someone says, ‘What do you think, David?’ I have learned not to say, ‘I agree with the previous person's opinion’, because on occasion and very embarrassingly, there has not always been a previous opinion expressed. I now say, ‘Sorry, I just had to take an urgent call’, or, occasionally, I maintain radio silence, pretending to have been cut off, and listening for what my colleagues will say about me when they think I can't hear. I know many colleagues feel as I do, that the teleconference is more often than not an exercise in futility, except perhaps for telecommunication companies.
I recently found that ‘teleconference disasters’ is a good dinner topic. One friend was participating in a teleconference at home, when her children were young. The conference droned on and on, as was typical of this group. She realised she needed to pick up the kids from school, so she left the phone off the hook, nipped out to the car, drove to the school, returned with the children, and when she picked up the phone, the drone was continuing unabated and no one had even noticed her absence.
Another time, the same friend was at home for a teleconference, and covered the mouthpiece to shout to her son to get the lasagne out of the freezer for dinner, whereupon the chairman of the teleconference made a cutting comment about her family's diet.
A different friend was recently telling me at dinner that at her first ever teleconference, she was appalled at the rudeness of the participants. Every time she tried to speak, one of them would speak over the top of her and completely ignore her opinions. It was several minutes before she realised that her phone had a mute button, which she had inadvertently switched on.
Another friend who heard this last story being told responded that she had recently joined an important committee, which often met by teleconference. A few minutes into her first teleconference, my friend's teenage daughter used a coarse expletive at the top of her voice to tell her brother what she thought of him. The expletive comprised an adjective which suggested her brother was engaging in an activity that usually involves two people and a noun which suggested her brother was inclined to more solitary activity. The teleconference stopped dead and there was an awful, hushed silence. Then the tremulous voice of the Chairperson asked, ‘Is anyone else experiencing a little bit of interference on the line?’ My friend's daughter asked her Mum, scathingly, why she had not used the mute button. ‘Mute button, what mute button?’ replied Mum.
So I will not be totally dismissive of teleconferences, because what other means of communication could generate such a rich vein of narrative? And who would have guessed that a simple mute button could wreak such havoc? I do hope readers can contribute to my growing fund of teleconference horror stories.