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Online Etiquette: 5 Rules for What (Not) to Do During Video Calls

Article February 5, 2021

Article

What are the rules of correct or polite behavior during a work meeting in virtual space? What are some things one should never forget?

For the moment, meetings usually aren’t held in the meeting room, but instead inside Zoom, Google Meet, or Skype... Even though the meeting is virtual, you still need to treat it like a real one and respect the main principles of business ethics. Daniel Šmíd, who teaches modern ethics and business ethics, told us all this and more in his interview for #MORETHANOFFICE.

Daniel Šmíd teaches modern ethics and business ethics. Photo by Pavol Bigoš

How have the recent months of socially distancing and virtually meeting manifested themselves in our social contact offline?

In my opinion, governmental measures and restrictions have made it into our lives far more deeply than we’re willing to admit. They’ve divided us and squeezed the warmth out of our physical meetings. We’re more distant, we feel less, we don’t want to shake hands, and our facial expressions are hidden behind masks. Social distancing isn’t defined by those two meters, but by an increased lack of humanity.

It’s a trifle, but... last year I received notably fewer Christmas and New Year’s greetings than the year before, as well as notably fewer responses to my New Year’s greetings. People didn’t email, or call either.

Could you list 5 rules for us that we all should respect during work contact under all conditions, no matter whether we’re meeting virtually or in the real world?

First and foremost, punctuality. You can’t just give up on that one, because it mainly concerns your business partner’s time that they’re spending on you. Meeting times need to be observed precisely, no matter what environment a meeting is held in.

Even the Queen of the United Kingdom is not taking any visits in person right now—just online. The queen sits in one room, a visitor sits in another room, and they speak over a screen. And even though the contact is mediated, no-one would dare to come late.

 

RESPECT IS IN FASHION

What else do people need to maintain?

Even though you can’t shake hands online, be sure to smile and wish your partner a good day, good morning, or good afternoon, and hook your conversation into that. You definitely need to maintain a human approach even though you’re formally connected over a technical medium only. These social rituals make every working meeting more pleasant.

The third rule is to keep up your personal appearance. Please don’t think of your outfit as a vanity, but rather as an expression of respect for the other person. You’re telling them: I took care to get ready for our meeting, which I value. You should dress adequately for the person you’re virtually meeting with, not for the environment you’re currently sitting in.

So sweatpants and a sweatshirt are fine if I’m only going to be calling my teammates?

I don’t expect that any reasonable person would go to the office, i.e. be with their teammates, in sweatpants. And so it’s not appropriate to meet with these same people in sweatpants from home. If I’ve heard correctly, we don’t go to the gym in a suit either.

Clothing affects our posture, our breathing, and last but not least our self-perception. You’ll listen differently and think differently. I recommend giving it a try if you haven’t undergone this self-test yet. 

Daniel Šmíd portrayted by Pavol Bigoš

So far you’ve mentioned three rules of online etiquette. What are the fourth and fifth?

Clothing bears a relation to how we express ourselves, how we accept arguments from the other person, and how we lead dialogues overall. We act and speak differently when we’re in sportswear than when we’re dressed for work or for business meetings.

And last but not least, it’s all about how we communicate and express ourselves verbally. Respect the basic principles of dialogue: let people finish speaking, don’t cut them off, wait for them to say what they want to say—and meanwhile know how to use a break to take over when some people speak for too long.

BY REASON OF HAIRCUT OR HEALTH

Virtual meetings bring new questions—is it appropriate to ask for your counterpart to turn on their camera?

We can ask for anything. And ask anyone. But we’ll often meet with rejection, which has to be taken as a possibility with any request. Your counterpart may not want to turn on their camera. Maybe they didn’t have time to comb their hair, but maybe they have a health problem that gets in the way of doing video.

Let’s not make assumptions, but instead try to empathize with the other person and respect their wish, even if it seems strange to us. In the case in question you basically have two options—either to accept it, or to postpone your meeting until the other person is ready to meet you face-to-face. It’s always a matter of what you’re willing to accept as a compromise.

Do you notice a difference when someone connects to a virtual meeting over a phone vs. a computer? (When someone happens to connect via phone, can’t that be taken as them not giving the meeting much weight, and thus connecting on the road rather than even taking the time to sit down at home...?)

I don’t think it’s important what tool you use, but how you use it. Even a phone, as long as it’s set into a good enough stand, can support dignified participation in virtual meetings of all kinds. It’s likewise possible that when you’re sitting at a monitor while also turning your eyes to your phone, you’re not as attentive and don’t even look as attentive.

So I see the difference being in how the phone is used. Similarly as with many other things. It’s much more important how you drive than what you drive. 

WOMEN, CUT THE COMPETITION

What’s your biggest advice to men in the framework of business etiquette?

Be aware that when someone is responsible for something in the company, that doesn’t mean they’re socially more important. If a man has been promoted or become the company’s director, they shouldn’t stop greeting the women teammates first, or waiting for their women business partners to offer a handshake first.

I explain to men that they should step off their pedestal of superiority and speak and act towards people like equals. Some men lack empathy, and I teach them to be more aware of their surroundings.    

And what do women struggle with?

I’m most bothered by the lack of femininity. For a number of women in managerial and top positions, it’s sadly fading away. They try to draw up even with their male counterparts, they don’t behave like women, they talk rough, and they smoke on the street in front of the offices or businesses.

They’re not aware of their social importance and are not very willing to express their fragility. Just because they’re fragile doesn’t mean they’re incapable or lack independence. I’d wish for them not to compete with men, and instead let their femininity shine through, and let men express their masculinity.

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