See No People, Hear No People: The Deeper Meaning of “Conference Call in Real Life”

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The viral video “A Conference Call in Real Life” by Tripp & Tyler has swept corporate America and been greeted with nearly uniform laughter because, as many a viewer would attest, it’s so true.” Clearly all sorts of awkwardness has occurred when people can’t discern who is in on a mass telephone conversation, can’t understand what another person is saying – or find the abrupt barking of a homebound pet dog incongruous to what had been presumed to be a professional discussion.

Phone pull quoteThese are all understandable foibles for a human species that needs to see as much as hear each other for full comprehension. The humor in the dog gag is in the eye / ear disconnect: Had we and the conference callers been able to see that the dog’s owner was calling in from home, we would not be surprised to hear the sudden bark.

But a passage of the video in which an unwitting participant’s voice abruptly starts to echo horribly, to the listeners’ agitation, suggests an additional technological limitation to phone calls: Has the quality of everyday voice service by phone gotten worse over the past 20 or 30 years? I recently talked by phone with a colleague who was traveling in Nairobi, Kenya and – like the callers in the video – we both suffered through the usual “sorry, go-ahead” / no-you-first” delay effect common for so long to transoceanic calls; but I’ve gotten the dread echo here within the continental U.S. as well, using a landline, in the 21st century.

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“What IS that??”

The fact of the matter is, phone-calling is not a particularly effective form of communication, and it never has been. Even though common use of the telephone is only about a century old, it can be easy to forget that for millennia and millennia of human existence there was only one minority condemned to communicating with others not by sight but by sound alone: the blind. The sighted – and those fortunate today to have contact with the outside world by more than phone alone – are well-equipped for the full spectrum of interpersonal communication, estimated to be about 60% facial and 40% vocal.

Which is to say, those who must comprehend others solely on actual words and tone of voice have two strikes against them before a conversation even begins. And the likelihood of comprehension and making a real connection drops fast if the quality of that sound is eroded, as with the hapless conference callers in the video.

This might have been lost on a former colleague of mine who once excoriated me over my preference for email because, he said, “that’s not communicating – that’s just typing.” (That he was obliquely referencing Truman Capote’s famous dismissal of Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road is probably purely coincidental.) He was a 60-something who had come of age in an era when success in business was equated with successful use of voice and the telephone, not the leisurely-paced written word which digital technology came to supercharge. Without a doubt he would have taken umbrage at a spoken line near the video’s end:

“Beth, you’ll send out a recap email that could’ve basically taken the place of this whole meeting, correct?”

Because for my former colleague, the telephone call was the thing; barring an in-person meeting, it was how he built relationships and got things done.

Like probably many, I favor face-to-face meetings over any for establishing the all-important personal foundation on which all subsequent communication is built, followed by emails allowing for well-thought-out, well-cited and well-supported back-and-forth discussions that don’t intrude and necessarily demand an immediate response.

Then would come Skype and its online conferencing ilk, which even with their own occasional troublesome connections at least provide the combination sight-and-sound so essential to interpersonal communication; then text messaging, which allows for the instant bursts of short-form contact that the phone provides without the intrusive “your-call-caught-me-in-the-middle-of-something” potential for awkwardness. (This difference is well noted by Millennials, and also the primary cause of a transition from voice to data documented by cell carriers).

Last, of course, would be barenaked phone-calling — convenient for the flash of a moment, yes, but with no ability to see the person you’re talking to, no way to show documents you’re looking at, and no string of a written back-and-forth to reference and refresh the memory.

With the rise of online video conferencing, will the traditional voice-only phone so well pilloried in “Conference Call in Real Life” one day take its place alongside the dial-up modem and the fax machine in the dustbin of history? I wouldn’t bet against it.