Meetings of any kind are wonderful explorations into social interaction, which is great because most meetings have absolutely no value otherwise. But, as anyone who’s ever participated in a conference call can attest, conference-call meetings are the worst kinds of meetings. And, as anyone who’s ever interacted with a stranger or moderate associate can attest, small talk, in general, is excruciating.
You’re alone in a room, probably in your underwear, waiting for your undeniably useless conference call. You know the call is going to take up way too much of your time to accomplish nothing (aside from the inevitable final comment from the call’s leader, “I’ll follow up with an email full of action items,” which either never arrives or could’ve substituted for the entire call), and you know you have to deal with the constant interruptions of everyone talking over everyone else with unnecessary loudness, and you know there’s going to be one guy who doesn’t know how to mute his phone, so you have to listen to his children screaming in the background while his dogs bark at the mailman. You know all this going in, but the absolute worst part of a conference call is the pre-call small talk. Conference-call small talk is the worst possible small talk.
You likely barely know the people with whom you’re talking, and there’s a good chance you’ve never met them. Although you can’t see them, you can sense the awkward huddle of the small group of same-site co-workers, leaning in and shouting at their weird speaker phone at the middle of a too-large-for-their-company table, then leaning back and making snide glances at each other while people who aren’t in that room are speaking.
You’re peacefully in your own office, but if you call in at the wrong time, you’re going to have to endure the following:
Where are you located? Whoa, it’s hot/cold there. I was there once when I was six in some city 400 miles away from where you live. All I remember is (inane memory). Are we waiting for anyone else? Just (insert two names) and maybe (third name), right? Hey, are you a (perceived local sports team) fan? I’m a (team) fan. Now let’s nonverbally decide which team is doing better, with the fan of the better team now having the onus of making a joke at the other person’s expense, unless that other person has already made the identical joke in a self-deprecating fashion.
It’s all the same Goffman-labeled safe supplies you’ll find in real life, but even more overtly forced and insincere. I’m perfectly comfortable with total silence during these moments, so I neither lead nor further the small talk. I’ll answer the questions because I am not total scum, but I won’t follow up with additional questions. Most people, however, are not comfortable with silence, even when in separate rooms 4,000 miles apart in hot/cold environments with different sports allegiances.
To make matters worse, the small talk is always interrupted by a stupid beep and a goober shouting “HEY JIM’S HERE” followed by eight seconds of ear-piercing crinkling, which is probably Jim’s bag of chips he apparently couldn’t open prior to calling. Not only did you not want to talk about your team’s new shortstop, but you’ve now been stopped short while attempting to be courteous, making you look like a self-important dolt who can’t live without proclaiming your favorite teams.
It gets even worse as more people join the call, with every sentence beginning with “I was just telling (insert growing list of names here).”
You’re silently begging with failed telepathy for the blabberer to stop saying things until everyone is there, but really all you can hope for is, “Let’s just get started and hope Barry joins here in a moment.” Seven or eight sentences of preamble later, just as you’re finally getting to the alleged point of the call, Barry joins and you have to go through it all again.
How can you ease the conference-call small talk? I’ve found the best way is to say nothing until whoever is leading the call asks if you’re there. And if you’re leading the call, it’s all your fault, so you get no sympathy. The call leader should be the first one on, greeting each new caller with “We’ll get started when everyone’s here.” Zero small talk. That is incredibly rare, so you need to have a strategy.
When To Call
Based on decorum, you owe it to everyone to call no later than the official start time of the meeting. Based on your own sanity, you owe it to yourself to best minimize the small talk. Here are your options:
This is my preferred method. I call eight minutes early, which is almost always early enough to beat anyone else trying to be first. Sort of like bidding $8.12 rather than $8.00 on eBay. If you are the first on the call, you get that fancy “You are the first person in the conference” message and it is then totally up to you if you get sucked into the small talk. When others join, and if they say anything, ignore them. Although they didn’t get the you’re-first notice, they don’t know for sure they’re not first. If you respond to them, everything that happens to you from that point on is your fault.
As more people join, you’ll have to listen to their small talk, but if you stay silent, you don’t have to participate.
This is rude, socially speaking, but it also gets you out of all small talk, unless you come in with some stupid story about why you’re late. This leads to the summary per the above Barry example, but to you, it’s not a summary. Everyone else has to endure the preamble a second time because of you, but you’ve skirted it all. You are selfish, but your skills are respected. This would be my second-favorite strategy if I weren’t so adamantly against being late.
Call Exactly On Time
This is my least favorite. Yes, you’re on time and therefore not a selfish scumbag, but the first thing you’ll hear is six voices talking over each other about sports and weather. You have to sit through eight or nine seconds of that before someone says, “Wait, I think someone just joined. Tim, is that you?”
You have to confirm your presence, then be drawn in to whatever inane conversation they’re having (but not before getting a summary of what they already said). Plus, there’s a good likelihood Barry is still out there, so whatever you’re hearing as you join will have to be repeated again when that selfish mastermind finally arrives.
Probably the best solution of all. You avoid all the pre-meeting small talk and all the during-meeting non-talk and still get copied on the post-call email. So many voices were interrupting each other throughout the call, everyone will forget you weren’t there. You’ll face no repercussions.
The best time to visit a hotel pool is between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Most guests have either checked out, are at their immeasurably important conferences or haven’t yet checked in. Thus, very few people, if any, are in the pool area.
Obviously, I never touch the water in these bacteria-ridden chlorinated puddles, nor do I consider laying in one of those chairs coated in tree shards and child farts, but in general, the pool area is a nice place to be outside and get some work done. You will usually find me in the least conspicuous spot possible, looking like I belong in a coffee shop.
That was happening today. I was the only person out there when a 20-something bikini-clad lass, whom we’ll call Peach, plopped herself into a chair and began loudly playing what 20-somethings refer to as music. Didn’t matter—I turned up my music that was pumping through my headphones, because I am a courteous human being.
All was fine.
About 17 minutes later, another 20-something woman, whom we’ll call Blue, showed up. To my dismay, she knew the first 20-something. Thus began the conversation, which was pleasant in tone, but still aggravating as turning up my music louder would’ve been detrimental to my precious hair cells (real things), plus I had to turn my music off because I eavesdrop on people.
They seemed to be reliving last night, which apparently was on fleek.
Peach got up and left, presumably to get more beer. Several minutes later, she returned, using her raspy voice to shout hateful things about someone she overheard talking about her.
“Apparently I’m a bridezilla,” she began, before unleashing a profanity-laced tirade to which her future husband, whose name I will later learn is Jeremiah, can look forward. In the middle of the screaming, Purple, another 20-something woman, arrived.
It appears Purple was the one who called Peach the bridezilla. They went at it. These best friends, one of whom is standing next to the other on the most important day of her life until her next marriage, were screaming at each other over their ridiculously loud music about whether or not Peach was a bridezilla, whether it was fair to call her one even if she was, and something about someone named Andrea, who I don’t believe was any of the three out there. Blue, through all of it, remained silent. Poor Blue.
And out came White Fleece Thing. Before she even accessed the pool area with her key card, she was shouting at Peach, Purple and Blue about Andrea. White Fleece Thing was, amazingly, even more vulgar than Peach. Apparently, everyone hates Andrea. They were being so disgusting and mean to someone who wasn’t present, I naturally sided with Andrea and felt sympathy for her. That is, of course, until Andrea showed up.
Andrea, who either has frostbite on her entire left arm or one of the ugliest tattoos I’ve ever seen, immediately went nuts on all four other women.
Paraphrasing for decorum (side note: I’ve played hockey for 30 years and have never heard language as disgusting as these morons used):
“Peach, you are a meanie because you didn’t ask me to be in your bridal party. I’m just a guest and Purple’s robust posterior is a bridesmaid? Why did I even come? Don’t even start, White Fleece Thing. You’ve known Peach for, like, a day, and you’re in the wedding? This is total hogwash.”
White Fleece Thing turned up the vulgarity in response, unintelligibly for most of it, but closing with a very clear, “Give me my car keys” for some reason.
At that time, a very nice hotel employee came outside with plastic cups because these women were pounding beers out of glass bottles, which is a direct violation of all the signs on every fence post near the pool.
“How’s it going, ladies?” he asked.
“Not good,” shouted Peach.
Totally ignoring and thus disrespecting the courteous man doing his job professionally, these abhorrent miscreants continued sniping at each other.
“Last night was the bachelorette party,” said Andrea in that hideous 22-year-old-who-is-naively-too-sure-of-herself-despite-knowing-nothing-and-also-can’t-enunciate voice, “and today was supposed to be chill by the pool.”
I’m unsure what her point was, and there likely wasn’t one, but my takeaway was these insufferable nut jobs are likely staying at my hotel for at least two more days.
Andrea said a few more nasty things and stomped away, saying she’s taking the car and never coming back. I still don’t know why a car was involved in this chill-by-the-pool day after the epic bachelorette party. Peach and Purple, who originally were arguing, embraced and expressed their mutual love.
Blue remained silent, by this point easily my favorite member of the group.
After a few more minutes of complaining about Andrea, White Fleece Thing spoke: “Your posterior looks great in those shorts, Peach.”
Peach then displayed her class and humility by shaking her behind toward White Fleece Thing in an incredibly unattractive exhibition. The important thing was White Fleece Thing had successfully committed the political move of being on the bride’s good side, probably moving a rung above Blue and maybe even closing in on Purple.
In summary, Peach is a bride who is getting married this weekend and had a bachelorette party with her best friends last night. Today, she is yelling at her best friends for not bending to her every whim, then resenting one of those friends for calling her out on it, and that friend resents that the bride is getting all the attention. Jeremiah will soon be married to Peach, and while I want to feel sympathy for him, I also sense there is a 98% chance he is just as repugnant as Peach is.
It’s been about 30 minutes since all the above happened, and Andrea still hasn’t returned. The other four are now choreographing a dance. Yes, they are choreographing a dance. Peach is screeching at these people to do things right, suggesting this dance will be performed at her wedding reception. The bridesmaids are cowering to Peach’s demands, cussing repeatedly while poorly stepping to bad choreography.
The point: these people are awful.
“Somebody go get Heather” was just uttered. That’s it for me. I don’t want to know anything about Heather.
You’re treating yourself to some culture, wandering your local art museum. Because no one else cares about culture, you’re one of very few patrons wandering the galleries, appreciating the art and, I hope, not photographing the art.
The sparse population in the building makes it easy to notice in most, if not all, of the rooms, there are security guards whose job is to make sure nobody steals anything and nobody touches anything. In addition to the stationed guards, there are mobile guards who walk the halls to keep an eye on things.
That’s where things get weird. The very point of their jobs is to look at people. They have to watch me to make sure I don’t steal a sculpture or encroach too closely on a painting. And yet, they appear to do everything in their human power to make it look like they’re not looking. Likely, they do this to make it less awkward on the patrons, who would otherwise feel watched, even though they know they’re being watched.
This is an even exchange, as most patrons are horrible people and thus refuse to acknowledge the presence of a security guard. The patrons pretend they don’t see the security guards and the security guards pretend they don’t see the patrons, despite the fact the security guards are employed to keep watch over the patrons.
Next time you’re in a scenario like this, try to make eye contact with a security guard. It’s not easy. A patron and a security guard have to silently collaborate to pretend the other doesn’t exist, which typically would completely defy common decency, except such defiance is required to complete the social contract between watcher and watchee.
Please Divert Your Attention
“Please direct your attention to the flight attendants for a safety demonstration.”
How many of you have ever actually directed your undivided attention to the flight attendants?
Despite the flight attendants standing in full view of hundreds of people, approximately zero of those people actually give undivided, consistent attention. And, if you do, the flight attendant notices. Then what happens? You’re supposed to be paying attention, but you’re the only one doing so. Now the flight attendant feels weird and it’s all your fault. Sort of like when you were in a very small class in college and most or all of your fellow classmates didn’t show up one day. Just you and the professor. It’s still a class, but it’s creepy for both of you.
On a plane, you are specifically asked to pay attention to a specific person. However, doing so makes everything socially strange for everyone. Again, you must break the rules to adhere to the rules. Amazingly, most people are still able to insert the flat end into the buckle and tighten by pulling on the strap.
Elevating Small Talk
Oh, the joy of elevators. Standing in a tiny moving box with total strangers, some of whom are dripping and reeking of chlorine, completely ignoring each other despite the completely impossible scenario of not noticing someone else in that space.
If you’re on a high floor, you get in the elevator and hope beyond hope the thing doesn’t stop so some other goober can get in. Likely, that person is not expecting you to be in there and is startled, semi-ironically easing the tension due to one kind of fear easing another kind of fear. And then you stand there in silence, staring at a matrix of buttons as if they are the Venus de Milo.
Again, you must totally ignore someone while simultaneously sharing an uncomfortably small space in order to create comfort.
One must appreciate the beauty of having to be impolite to be considered polite. Mustn’t one?
 Why do people do this? Some will photograph every single piece in the museum, never actually looking at the art except to frame it on their stupid cell phones. Do they go home and scroll through 8,000 photos to have the art experience of a lifetime? You’re at the Louvre, you goon. And, by the way, no photo you take of the Mona Lisa from 15 feet away through a gigantic glass case is going to be as good as other widely available photos. Stop going to art galleries. Just stay home and stare at the internet.