With the shift to work and play from home, a lot of the people in my life are new to voice-chat and video chat since they weren't using it before. As a gamer, I've picked up some general etiquette over the years that these people haven't been privy to, like not eating into the microphone, using headphones instead of speakers to avoid echoing into the channel, or using push to talk so people don't hear my kids fighting in the background.
Many of my colleagues, family, and even friends don't so much do that, and some really don't seem to see the issue with it in the first place. Maybe I'm just being overly particular, but I find a lot of it to be a bit TMI or distracting. What are ways I can politely encourage better remote chat habits from family, co-workers, and friends?
I understand your experience, annoyance, and potential frustration. The people you describe are like tourists coming to New York City for the first time; they don't understand many things that native residents take for granted. For example, you can't just stop in front of a staircase to look at your phone because there are approximately nine million people right behind you trying to catch the train that is currently pulling into the subway. You also can't wear a backpack on your back while on the train because that's space best used for other people, and you have room for a bag between your legs. You can't even stroll down the sidewalk, side by side with your friends because other people are using those sidewalks and might have some urgency in their cadence. Where the tourists are from, these are things they simply don't have to think about.
Where your coworkers, family, and friends are from, video-chat and voice-chat etiquette are things they simply don't have to think about. Of course, that doesn't minimize or negate your experience. But a dash of understanding will go a long way toward getting you to a grounded place where you can be helpful.
The failures of consideration you describe can be annoying—even infuriating—to an audio native, but it is important to remember that people are coming into this blind and likely stressed by the circumstances. They are coming from a world where they can eat a snack while chatting with a friend, where a mute button doesn't even exist. Certainly, some folks are entitled and blatantly inconsiderate, but for most people, bad social behavior is driven by ignorance, not malice or privilege. Perhaps they haven't ever been on the receiving end of an audio faux pas, so they don't even realize their behavior is inconsiderate.
Establishing etiquette requires people to understand and buy-in, but once they learn, they'll self-police. Some learning will be observational. For instance, if they notice people muting themselves on Zoom, they'll hopefully come to a realization. But sometimes social correction is needed to accelerate the process—perhaps saying to someone, "Hey, I can hear your kids playing in the background, would you mind using a headset?" or "Please mute your mic when you take a bite of something." Even something more subtle and demonstrative, like, "Hold on a sec, let me get my headset so you don't hear an echo," or "keep talking, I'm just going on mute because I have a delicious sandwich that I need to eat right now."
As you navigate striking the right tone, it is important to remember where power sits. It's easy to be direct with a friend and trust they won't take it the wrong way. Co-workers can be a lot trickier, especially if the offender is a boss or a manager. If you are a manager yourself, you have the opportunity to set the tone and make gentle direct corrections yourself, "Don't forget to turn off your microphones, everyone." But trying to issue a correction to a colleague or someone higher-up can be fraught, especially right now because everyone's nerves are frayed. The chance someone will take a well-intentioned correction as an insult or criticism is higher than it would be in normal circumstances.
To minimize the chance that the other party will feel blamed, I recommend centering the need for the correction on yourself. This is the difference between asking someone to put on a headset because there is a lot of background noise on their end and asking someone to put on a headset because you are struggling to hear them on your end.
At the end of the day, though, you aren't responsible for other people's feelings. If you make a well-intentioned correction and someone takes it poorly, that isn't on you. Also, you aren't responsible for socializing people who are new to this. If the stress and annoyance is costing you something, though, put your boundary out there with whatever tone feels appropriate for the situation and relationship. You can be empathetic, patient, and compassionate, but remember—as any New Yorker will tell you—even strident tones have their place in social correction, too. Focus on expressing your needs to those around you. Having a conversation without hearing a chewing noise is a pretty straight-forward request that should be easy for others to meet.
As always, you can send your quandaries to [email protected]. I look forward to hearing from you!