Can you hear me? I can’t hear you!

International Conference Calls

In international companies, the Conference Call is the easiest way to hold meetings with participants from different countries. Depending on the company’s policy, this is done as a video call (with web cams) or audio only. Both have pros and cons.

The advantage of the video call is that it becomes easier to follow what is happening, because you can see the participants talking and can recognize and interpret any emerging anger, impatience or lack of understanding earlier. 

The advantage of “audio only” calls, on the other hand, is that you can take part in meetings that take place in the middle of the night or in the early morning due to the time difference, even in your pyjamas, without anyone noticing it. In addition, you can wander around the house during the meeting – equipped with a headset.  However, it makes sense to know the range of your headset, otherwise you might miss crucial dramatic moments.

The natural enemy of a harmonious conference call is the mute button. It often happens that someone presses this button to cough, to sneeze, to answer emails parallel to the call, to make the espresso machine grind and gurgle (or for 1000 other reasons) and then later forgets that nobody can hear him or her. The bitterness grows from minute to minute as that person tries to take the floor, and the other participants talk naturally through their contribution! The experience of being treated like thin air (“Doctor, everyone ignores me.” – “Next, please!”) can create real aggression, which lingers in the ladies and gentlemen concerned long after they have finally found out the cause.

In conference calls with many participants not conducted in their own mother tongue, you learn to appreciate the type of “American ex-military” who answers questions simply with “Yes, sir” or “No, ma‘am”. Protracted discussion often leads to a certain disorientation among the majority of participants, and once you’ve lost the thread, it is difficult to pick up again quickly!

In international meetings, native speakers have a home advantage right from the start, and everyone else can count themselves lucky if this advantage is not exploited politically by speaking too fast and using rhetorical “smoke and mirrors.” Participants who are familiar with each other can help each other by using a parallel chat. Questions such as “Did you hear what she just said?” or “What dialect is that?” – “Texas!” – “Oh…” can be answered quickly via chat. 

Chats also serve as an efficient voting tool for a hierarchy subset of the crowd – across language and mentality barriers. It can be very funny to read these chats again afterwards.

As an example, let’s take a meeting with department managers and their team leaders who reporting to them from locations in India, USA and Europe. For simplicity, we will call the participants of the conference call IN1, US1, EU1 and so on.

The department manager (US) says:
“I am happy that we could schedule this kick off meeting so quickly. I already sent you a note some weeks ago that we expect this new contract coming in and that we will require the needed data from the customer.
Let me welcome our team leads! They are doing a great job, this is very much valued! You guys are great and you are completely empowered to fill in the details on this new contract! Go for it!”

IN1: “Did he really say that?”
EU1: “What?”
IN1: “That we have to fill in the details.”
US1: “Yes!”
IN2: “What does he mean???”
EU2: “I think in fact he means that they have known about this new contract for 2 months and completely forgot to request the data and get things prepared. So nothing has been set up yet!”
IN2: “And the contract starts tomorrow…”
US2: “OMG”
IN1: “One of us has to tell them that we will not get this done until tomorrow!”
US1: “I did last time!”
EU2: “Ok, my turn…”

Communication confusion in conference calls usually reaches its peak when individual participants dial in from their car. The acoustics are almost always poor, and the person ought to have a bit of concentration left for driving. This can lead to surprising misunderstandings. Here is an example from one of our own Harlequin calls:

T1: “I’ll give Ricarda a call.”

T2 (from the car): “Who will you forgive for your cold?”

As I was saying – have fun with your next conference calls!

Text: BBR
English translation: BCO


Author: bbr

Hello, I am Beate Brinkman, the bbr.harlekin. I am editor and author for Harlekin.Blog e.V. and my “main job” is support coordinator in an international IT company. So far I have worked in German, Dutch, American and Indian companies and have acquired a great deal of experience of multicultural cooperation. I have been living in the Netherlands as a German for many years and have discovered that the cultural differences between Germans and Dutch alone could fill entire books. For professional and private reasons, I am particularly interested in multicultural (mis)understanding. Whether it’s about food, language, official conference calls or the organisation of funerals – when the cultures of several countries collide, things get lively. And that leads to sometimes unpleasant, often very funny, but always instructive situations.

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