Cross-cultural video conference etiquette in a locked down world

Most of us have used video conferencing at some point. For teams working remotely, it’s probably second nature. But in this physically distanced world, video calling is playing a far greater role in our lives as we reconvene in cyberspace. Use of Zoom, GoToMeeting, Webex and Microsoft Teams has rocketed – and a whole new generation has discovered Houseparty. 

And yet…, we’re making the same old mistakes, as well as some new ones. Here are six common errors – and how to avoid them. 

Arriving late 

You can’t blame the traffic when you are working from home. Lateness is a sign of disrespect for others. If anything, it’s polite to turn up slightly early for a video call, especially if you are talking to colleagues from other cultures. Use the time to make sure the sound is workingand for small talk. Try to gauge the mood and mindset of the other participants. Everybody is dealing with this crisis differently. Some cultures have suffered more than others. Enquiring after a colleague’s wellbeing has never mattered more. 

Overcommitting 

Remember the bad old days, when a contact would constantly change arrangements, or refuse to commit to a time? Well, it’s starting to happen in the virtual world. Now that we’re home-schooling kids and attending work coffee break, lunch chat and happy hour, it’s understandable that the days are full of virtual interaction. But if you arrange a call with your team or with clients, stick to it. Be thoughtful. Don’t mess people around. Show that you respect their time, especially if you usually work remotely with teams in other countries and time zones. These dynamics shouldn’t change, regardless of whether you have live-streamed yoga at midday. 

Failing to focus 

There will be distractions when you’re working from home. Kids, pets, deliveries, housemates. Try to minimise interruption to video calls. Make everybody in the house aware that you need privacy. It may be cute the first time your three-year-old barges into a virtual meeting or your cat walks across the keyboard but not for your colleague in Asia, who is trying to make a presentation. Constant external noise is disruptive, too, especially for people in the meeting for whom English may not be a first language. 

Over-embracing the new way of working 

Back when people worked in offices, how many meetings were necessary? How many people attended? How long would the meeting go on? Face to face, we’d mastered the art of keeping it simple. Just because video conferencing is the new way of meeting, don’t overdo it. Ask yourself if the meeting is necessary and who should be there. Create an agenda and share it. Do not involve individuals simply because you can. An overcrowded virtual meeting, especially a cross-cultural one, can descend into time-wasting mayhem. 

Being overwhelmed by the tech 

You want to appear professional when video calling, especially if it’s an external meeting. Fiddling with the computer, talking too loudly or failing to prepare for activities like file sharing are all common mistakes. Practice first, make sure you know what you’re doing and invest in a decent set of headphones, as we may be in this for the long haul. Remember to mute yourself when listening, so nobody can hear you slurping your coffee or surreptitiously checking your email, and un-mute to speak. Check the meeting time, too; if you’re dealing with people across different time zones, make sure everybody is clear what time the meeting starts – and be considerate in your scheduling. 

Looking unprofessional 

Nobody, even in the most formal cultures, expects you to wear a suit and tie when working from home. But attending a meeting in pyjamas is disrespectful. Colleagues from around the world will be naturally curious about the home setup of their workmates but don’t cause a distraction. Sloppy clothing, a messy background, lurid art, an unmade bed, rampaging dogs…all of these will distract from what you are saying. Keep it neutral. Or use the opportunity to style a background that portrays an image you’d like to cultivate – a serene setting and some potted plants, for example, even if you live in perpetual chaos. 

Written by Sue Bryant

About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel

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