Now that we’ve been working from home for nearly a year, everyone has become pretty familiar with the mechanics of video calls, both for work and social life. Everyone has also become familiar with burning out on these calls. In part, we’re burning out because, consciously or unconsciously, we’re navigating different communication cultures using the tools from in-person meetings.
Communication cultures are the behaviors and norms that people use when engaging with others. They don’t necessarily tie directly to any national, ethnic, or regional culture, as two people from the same area can have different communication cultures.
There’s some communication behaviors that most of us incorporate as our culture. You’d be shunned by most people if you went around insulting everyone; it’s antisocial and nobody wants to be around a full-time jerk. However, if you are among a group of good friends, you may have an accepted culture of roasting each other—playful or less than playful insults—that allows you all to insult each other and possibly improve social cohesion, because it acts as a sign of trust: we know each other well enough to tease one another without hurting anyone’s feelings.
In the video meetings that have become the default method of work communication during quarantine, cultural styles are more important to consider. Without the non-verbal cues that come from being in the same room as a person, culture clashes can aggravate the Zoom fatigue we’re all feeling.
In this article, we’ll look at four cultural style clashes, how they make video calls harder, and how we can be a little kinder to those that operate with the opposite style. I’m skipping a discussion of introverts vs. extroverts. There’s plenty of good discussion of that out there, and besides, we’re mostly ambiverts on a spectrum of introversion and extroversion.
Wait vs. interrupt
In any conversation between two people, one of the biggest—possibly the central—norm is the accepted behaviors for trading control of a conversation. Personally, my favorite conversations are those where each of us says the thing on our mind, then stops to indicate that the other person or people can talk. There may be pauses in the conversation—that’s ok! Interrupting someone before they are done talking can be seen as impossibly rude, as can not stopping when you’ve finished a thought. This is wait culture.
Other people will talk until someone else interrupts them to respond—this is not only ok, it’s expected! Pauses in the conversation are awkward, if not outright rude, so they are to be avoided. You talk, rounding out your idea, following threads, until someone else jumps in the take over, like a relay race. This is interrupt culture.
As you might guess, these two conversation styles can come to frustrating clashes, especially in video calls. Each side does things they consider normal behaviors but that the other side finds breaches of etiquette. Interrupting before I’m done speaking? Rude! Not holding up your end of the conversation? Rude!
In video calls, as in in-person conversations, interrupt culture can dominate the flow. But video calls make it worse. Most that I’ve been in only allow one person to clearly talk at a time; when another person breaks in, sometimes audio cuts out or it becomes a garbled mess. Additionally, video calls are not perfectly real-time; there’s often a tiny lag. Trying to communicate over these calls as purely interrupt can make for one-sided or noisy conversations.
Under these circumstances, we all need to learn a little bit of wait culture. Try to package what you want to say into a few sentences and trust that your listener will understand your point or ask questions if you don’t. Allow more silences and conversational space since we don’t have our physical cues to carry us through. This may be harder for people who like to talk out ideas. In that case, set expectations about the meeting. For example, clarify up front that it’s a brainstorming session and will involve sharpening ideas.
This doesn’t let us wait culture folks off the hook. We need to learn to overcome the feeling that we are being rude by interrupting someone in the middle of a monologue. In the absence of a raised hand or a buzzer, we need to find ways to butt in that allows us to participate without being jerks about it. Otherwise, we could end up as silent faces on a screen. Many apps have introduced a virtual hand raise, but those can be hard to spot on crowded calls.
Positive and negative politeness
You might have been brought up to be polite, but what version of politeness? Were you taught to be friendly and chatty to others or to avoid imposing on others and getting in their way? This is the difference between positive—as in adding to your experience—and negative—as in not subtracting from your experience—politeness. Both types are important to most people in varying amounts, but those different amounts can mean politeness of one type can be impolite when considered from the other side.
Let’s look at a pretty standard video meeting put together to talk through a new feature. This is a stakeholders meeting, so there are a lot of folks from different departments. The product manager who called the meeting spends the first few minutes asking about people’s weekends. A few people chime in and banter about hiking, bingeing, and birthdays. Meanwhile, a senior engineer stews—this meeting is cutting into the work they need to do and this chit-chat isn’t helping.
The PM is trying to be positively polite, treating their coworkers with a friendly and casual manner, and welcoming them to this interaction. For the engineer, however, the whole meeting is a bit negatively impolite, as it gets in the way of their freedom of action, and giving some of the meeting over to non-meeting business exacerbates it. How can we find a middle ground here?
First of all—and I say this as someone who has a pretty strong negative politeness focus—we need to allow some small talk during these meetings. Remote work can be lonely, whether in quarantine or not. A little bit of active, engaged politeness can make it easier to have real, productive, and sometimes contentious conversations. Any little bit of shared humanity helps.
But on the other side of things, be mindful of how you’re spending meeting time and who you’ve inviting. Connect with a little human interaction, but have an agenda and get to it within a few minutes. Understand who is a key stakeholder and who you invited as a courtesy so they’d be able to share if they are interested in doing so. Some of your virtual attendees might be distracted during the meeting or not show up. If that impedes your action in the meeting, say something. But if it doesn’t, let them catch up on other work.
Ask vs. guess
Imagine that you’re visiting a city in which you have a friend from an earlier point in your life. You could get a hotel and arrange to meet up for dinner. On the other hand, they just bought a house and might have a guest room. If you stayed with them, it would be easier to find time for meals and conversation. You haven’t talked to them in a while, and you don’t know if they’d be okay to host you. Do you ask to stay with them?
If you said no, you might be guess culture. When making requests, guess culture only asks if they are pretty certain that the answer will be yes. That’s because to say no to a request is rude and a little bit of a personal insult. The request itself is a bit of an obligation.
In ask culture, you might as well ask, right? The worst they can say is no. Denying someone’s request isn’t rude at all. If you’re asking for something, the other person has complete power to say yes or no, and the assumption is that someone will accept or deny your request solely based on their ability to fulfill that request.
In work situations, we have to request help from and assign tasks to our co-workers all the time. But it remote and virtual situations, it’s harder to build the comradery that would allow a guesser to read a person and decide if they would be open to a request or not. On top of that, you don’t have the non-verbal cues that would help this determination.
As you may have guessed, guess culture is on the short end of the video call stick. We all have to get a little bit bolder about asking for help or doling out work to those best suited for the job. On the other side of that, we have to be better at giving and receiving a no from someone. Without no being an acceptable answer, we’ll continue to shy away from requests unless we’re certain of a safe yes.
Video meetings aren’t ideal, but we can make them a little easier by understanding that there are multiple ways of interacting with your fellow humans. I imagine some people will be surprised to learn the rules around the opposite communication styles; I know I was when I first learned about them. The unfortunate thing about remote interaction is that certain styles can work better or overwhelm the opposing style. Ask someone who is primarily wait and talk, negative politeness, and guess cultures, I try to be understanding of my coworkers who operate under the other communication styles. They are perfectly valid ways to interact, and building bridges works better than handing out demerits.
If you’re looking for more ways you can improve working remotely, take a look at these articles:
- How to lead with clarity and empathy in the remote world
- How to communicate more deliberately and efficiently when working remotely
- Learning to work asynchronously takes time
- Have better meetings—in person or remote
- Socializing with coworkers while social distancing
- Working from home tips from our experienced remote employees
If you want to dig into conversational styles, I recommend these posts on Metafilter, which is where I first encountered the concepts:
Knowing that these divides exist is the first step in crossing them.
Illustrations by Alex Francis.