Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I'd Rather Poke a Stick in my Eye

.....than participate in a conference call.

Is there anyone out there who enjoys conference calls? Maybe it's just me, but I find conference calls frustrating, annoying, and generally a waste of time. 

The call I was on today was pretty typical, with the usual array of annoyances.  During this particular call there was an unusual variety of background noises: building construction sounds (jack hammers), wind blowing (someone was outside), car sounds (someone was driving and listening in), sounds of moving furniture (maybe the caller was using the time to rearrange their office?), and a generally annoying hum that came and went (could not identify the source).  I suppose I should be thankful that there were not the other typical background noises one often hears: sounds of typing, eating or drinking, rattling paper or food wrappers being opened, side conversations with others in the office, ringing phones, barking dogs, and screaming kids.  It's usually up to the moderator to handle those callers who violate the conference call etiquette with these obnoxious noises.  However, if you are not the moderator and s/he is not handing the situation, should you speak up? Wait a bit and hope someone else will? Just grit your teeth? Hang up?

Another annoying sound one often encounters on conference calls is The Heavy Breather.  This unfortunate person often has blocked sinuses and, consequently, mouth-breaths directly into the microphone.  Someone will be saying, "I think we need to rewrite the section on.... 'HEAVYBREATH'....I suggest that the person who needs to take care of this is....'HEAVYBREATH' ...." Wait! What? Who? Alternatively, the person with problem sinuses will try to breath through their nose anyway, creating a high-pitched whistling noise.... 

Thankfully, we didn't have one of those today, but did have a different type of breathing distraction. One of the scientists on this call today was elderly and short of breath.  He seemed to be having difficulty talking and sounded as if he was about to have some type of seizure.  I was uncertain as to whether to ask if he was OK (potentially embarrassing) or keep quiet (potentially missing a life-threatening situation).  I decided not to say anything and just listen closely for sounds of further distress. After a bit, I decided that his condition must be chronic and not immediately life-threatening (or maybe he was exercising during the call!).

Another problem, which especially bothers me, is when some people speak too softly or not directly into their mike.  These people are sometimes what Seinfeld calls "low-talkers", not to be confused with the "close-talker" or the "high-talker".  The low-talker speaks so softly that others have to strain to make out what they are saying.  Low-talkers speak softly in person as well as on the phone, but in the latter case the listener does not have any possibility of understanding some of the conversation by lip-reading, for example.  Low-talkers can often be the people who actually have something of substance to say on a call, so I want to hear them.  I will usually say something like, "I didn't quite catch what you said. Could you repeat that?" If it's chronic and the low-talker is a key person on the call, I'll say, "I'm really having difficulty hearing Dr. X. Is it just my phone or are others having the same problem?" The latter may prompt the low-talker to speak up. 

Another difficulty I have during conference calls, especially with a lot of participants that I don't know well or never met, is not being able to identify who is speaking.  If you're mainly listening and not participating in the conversation, perhaps this is not too important.  However, if someone asks you a direct question, it might be important for you to know who it formulate an appropriate response.  The Unknown Speaker might say, "DrDoyenne, I see that in the section you wrote for the panel summary that you failed to cite my stellar work on the topic.  I wonder if you'd like to comment?"  Uh oh.....just shoot me now and get it over with.  I find that being unable to identify speakers is generally disconcerting and just adds to my overall discomfort with conference calls.  I appreciate it when a speaker says, "This is Bob. Here's what I think about this issue..." When I've been listening to a series of unknown speakers, I feel like kissing Bob.

Perhaps the least annoying are the people on the call who never say anything.  However, I'm aware of them lurking in the background.  What are they thinking?  Why are they not saying anything? Why are they on the call? Or did they call in, identify themselves, and then mute their phone so they could work on something else. 

Hmmm. Not a bad idea.