My previous meeting had run over, so I was late phoning in. A helpful lady patched me through and announced my arrival, and the chair introduced me to everyone present – most of them there in person, sitting around a Brisbane table. The conversation resumed where it had been before my insertion and, consulting my agenda, I tried to figure out where they were up to and what on earth everyone was talking about.
Teleconferences, I've discovered, are far from being the most natural of social interactions. The most obvious problem is the lack of any visual cues. There's no subtle way of indicating that you have something to say, and no way of knowing if and when people are expecting you to chip in. Wait for a pause in the conversation and it’s guaranteed that somebody else will start speaking before you. Twenty minutes since I’d joined the meeting and I still hadn’t actually contributed anything other than "Hello".
One person in particular was proving difficult to make out. I turned up the volume on my phone. But then someone else, also on conference call, chimed in. She was so loud I literally dropped the handset.
So there I was, desperately trying to keep track of the conversation. Turning the volume on my phone up and down as different people spoke.
Things only got worse.
First, the audio feed from the meeting started misbehaving. It began by cutting out for a few seconds every now and then. But the silences became longer and more frequent. I’d miss out on four or five words in a row and, trying to guess what I’d missed, would lose track of the next sentence.
Then, as the meeting was drawing to a close, somebody began stacking teacups. At least that’s what it sounded like. The harsh chinking sound was making it even harder to focus on listening to the conversation.
By this stage, the teleconference had also over-run. I had some emails to respond to before I left for home, so I tried to make my apologies and leave. But now there were separate conversations going on in the room. After five minutes of failing to find a judicious moment to say goodbye, I quietly hung up.
Earlier in the day I'd been holding my own in discussions ranging from cross-frequency coupling of brain oscillations to the implementation of a new curriculum. But, for the duration of that teleconference, lacking the context to the conversation, hampered by the absence of visual cues, and struggling with the variable sound quality, I was, for want of a better word, nonverbal.