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Miss Conduct

Advice: My co-workers’ side talk during Zoom calls is really distracting

What to do when colleagues stop paying attention. Plus, video conferencing for the holidays?

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Is it rude for people in a Zoom meeting to be texting each other in a parallel, private conversation? I was just in a meeting of nine people, four of whom were pretty clearly texting (while offering pious comments at the meeting about “inclusion”). Should Zoom texters be asked to focus on the meeting?

Anonymous / Beverly

Oooh, anyone who can slip in a stiletto parenthetical with your stealth and style should appreciate the temptations of the murmured aside! That “inclusion” comment was worthy of Dickens.

You’re obviously personally annoyed at the Inclusion Clique — and you may be entirely in the right — but talk to the meeting leader privately rather than calling out other participants. Meeting manners matter, especially in a new and distracting format, but attendees policing each other can derail things quickly. Sidebar conversations aren’t a 21st-century phenomenon; surely they’ve been happening since our Stone Age ancestors learned to train pious gazes on the tribe’s chest-pounding strongman while surreptitiously making rude gestures to amuse a friend.

In addition to setting protocol and calling out violators, leaders can structure meetings to reduce the temptation, or need, to sidebar. People miss the serendipitous, casual workplace conversations when working remotely, so schedule meetings to permit time for a check-in at the beginning or an optional 10-minute coffee break at the end for informal socializing. Sidebars may also be about relevant topics that the individual isn’t ready to bring to the whole group yet. Including smaller breakout sessions, during which groups of two or three can discuss specific concerns or work on particular tasks, can help keep productive sidebars from detracting from the main topics.

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Is it rude to try to impose Zoom etiquette and turn-taking for, say, Christmas Day gift opening? It kills the spontaneity, but if chaos reigns, no one can hear and, personally, it gives me a headache.

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A.J. / Waltham

Eminently sensible! I’d also suggest a hybrid solution, like a web page or Facebook group, where live Zoom gatherings can be linked, but people can also post photos, videos, and updates. This would allow everyone to participate as they are able — given time differences, ages, work schedules, etc. — and maintain spontaneity on the individual level. After all they’ve been through this year, little kids shouldn’t have to delay gratification so they can open presents “live” on camera.

An online family meeting spot can let you share the holiday in new ways — classic movie watch parties, reading plays or poems aloud together, online games, a midnight happy hour for the grown-ups, an online Advent calendar for the kids.

In 2012, I wrote that “most of us have too much stuff and not enough money,” and touted “experience gifts” as an alternative. Most of those aren’t safe anymore, and we’re in dire financial straits again. Maybe “creative connection” should be the next gift trend. A collage, a poem, a series of photographs — something to make recipients know they are seen and loved.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.