A Primer on Conference Call Etiquette

Director of the Leukemia Program at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, and editor-in-chief of ASH Clinical News

We’ve all been there.

At precisely 2:59 p.m. you pick up the phone handset and dial into the conference call scheduled to start in the next minute. You search through appointment reminders and old emails to find the six-, or seven-, or 10-digit conference code and enter it, followed by the “pound” sign. You wait, remaining in conference call purgatory, until the Almighty Organizer – the giver of meaning to your life over the next hour – joins the call.

When he or she does, a two-toned “beep-beep” signals that you can now enter the heavenly realm of the meeting, to be joined by the disembodied voices of others who have been similarly anointed.

You have arrived.

Even though you may not be able to see the other participants (for those who don’t hang out in Google or video-conference through Skype), your actions over the next hour will define you – at least to some extent. You may wonder, as I often have, what is the proper etiquette for proper conference call behavior?

While I would love to tell you that the advice you are about to read was handed down to me by Miss Manners, Emily Post, and Letitia Baldrige from their lofty positions sipping tea together on The Mount, I am shooting from the hip here. The following recommendations reflect my own biases and those of a few trusted colleagues whose opinions I was able to solicit.

1. Acceptable Conversation Prior to the Start of the Conference Call

Oh, those awkward minutes before the meeting actually begins, filled with uncomfortable silences or stilted small talk that gets interrupted as fellow conference call attendees straggle onto the line. Perhaps you know the others on the call so far, perhaps you don’t; either way, it’s best to stick to “safe” topics of conversation, such as inquiries into others’ locations or comparisons of the weather – as long as gloating is not part of these comparisons. Here’s an example, from a call that took place in February:

Me: “Where are you calling from?”
Disembodied Voice #1: “I’m in Boston, We have 39 feet of snow now.”
Me: “Oh, that’s terrible. We only have 37 feet of snow.”
Disembodied Voice #2: “I’m in Tampa. It’s cold here, too. The other day, I had to put on a light jacket.”

Silence, as participants in northern climes imagine the Tampa caller being dunked in a vat of boiling pitch.

Unacceptable topics include those that would be unacceptable in any work environment: dogmatic views supporting fringe political or religious groups, inside jokes that only one other person on the call may or may not understand, and exhaustive descriptions of non-healing sores on your own body.

2. The Mute Button Is Your Friend

You see it there, causally hanging out near the “hands-free” and “conference” buttons on your desktop phone, or near the keypad and “+” signs on your mobile device, flashing you a come hither look. Go ahead. Press it. It wants you to. Even if voluntarily silencing yourself goes against every impulse in your body that has gotten you to this station in life so far, do it anyway because nobody else on the call really needs to hear the following sounds:

  • Your typing. I believe that click, click, click sound has officially been declared by the Geneva Convention as being “really, really annoying.”
  • Any movement of air into or out of the three orifices above your chin. The heavy breathing just says “stalker”; actual movement of mucus just says “disgusting,” and “I think I can feel the rhinovirus move through the handset and into my ear.”
  • Conversations you are having with others in your office.
  • The reverb from your phone’s speaker to the microphone and back again, creating a Lou Gehrig, Pride of the Yankees moment. This will NOT be, be, be… the greatest day, day, day… of your life, life, life.

And please remember to turn the “mute” button off when you start to speak. This is because no one else can hear you when the button is pressed. Because it is muting you.

3. The Hold Button Is Your Enemy

At the hospital where I work, when a caller is placed on hold, he or she is treated to the latest updates on healthy behavior, with frequent refrains of my hospital’s name. I know this because when I am on hold at my own hospital, I always seem to hear the message asking if I have problems with urinary incontinence. I try not to read too much into the message, but it is eerie, as if they know something about me I haven’t yet realized.

When you are on a conference call and place your line on hold, everyone else on the conference call hears that message, over and over again, along with your institution’s name, over and over again. It doesn’t take long to deduce who the offending caller is, and when that happens, everyone on the call makes fun of you. Behind your back. Just like when you were in middle school. Over and over again. Sometimes, the only way to get rid of the repeating message is for everyone to hang up and call back. And when that happens, they picture you being dunked in the pot of boiling pitch.

4. Don’t Badmouth Others

We learn in preschool that saying mean things about another person isn’t very nice. And we learn from our experiences on conference calls that it is statistically significantly more likely that the moment you make fun of somebody you are sure is not dialed in, that person will turn off his or her “mute” button and loudly declare, “I’m on the call.”

Also – as I have advised my daughter who has recently become enamored of Instagram – the person you assume is your best friend this week is likely to be your worst friend next week and will quickly dish on you to all of the people you have maligned in the past. So, assume that everyone on the call will repeat what you have to say and act accordingly.

5. Be On Time

This rule applies to both start times and end times. Since the advent of the conference calls, when cavepeople first shouted at each other from their respective cave openings rather than gathering around the fire, nobody has ever been happy that a conference call ran over its allotted time. As for the start of the call, you really are not busier, or more important, or encountering worse traffic than anybody else who has dialed in. Don’t even give the excuse that you didn’t have the call-in number or the access code; that’s just denial. Do yourself (and everyone else) a favor: if the call starts at 3:00 p.m., call in at 2:59 p.m.

It’ll even give you an extra minute to talk about the weather.


The content of the Editor’s Corner is the opinion of the author and does not represent the official position of the American Society of Hematology unless so stated.

Have a comment about this editorial? Let us know what you think; we welcome your feedback. Email the editor at [email protected].

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