“Think before you speak” is one of the first bits of wisdom most kids are taught. For a lot of us, though, it clearly never really caught on. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had another little procedure they had to go through first — say, a button they needed to press to confirm that they actually want to speak?
Well, right now, we do — the Google Meet/Zoom microphone mute button.
Given that we’re conducting both business and pleasure via video calls right now, we’re experiencing interpersonal communication a bit differently than before. If you’ve got more than five or so people on a call, it’s just polite to keep your mic off until you’re the one speaking. Not only does it help cut out background noise, it gives some semblance of order to the whole affair, especially if it’s a work-related meeting.
Maybe the fact that we have to constantly mute and unmute our microphones ultimately stifles the flow of ideas. Maybe some things that are truly worth saying ultimately go unsaid. But, on the bright side, maybe some incredibly stupid or unnecessary things have gone unsaid, too, ultimately allowing for a more equitable conversation.
Researchers from Brigham Young University and Princeton University found that in multi-gender work settings, men speak 75 percent more than women, particularly in scenarios where a decision is being made via majority rule. In many cases, this imbalance is surely subconscious on both parts. It’s not clear exactly how this problem is supposed to be fixed, though neoliberal feminist discourse would suggest that women merely need to lean in, have confidence and assert themselves.
It’s possible, though, that the virtual call offers more equity. Depending on how exactly they’re organized, it often makes sense for each person to be designated time to speak. Those who aren’t speaking keep their mics off. Before someone can blurt out an interruption, helpful or not, there’s a small additional hoop for them to jump through by turning off their mic. Hopefully, this serves as its own natural deterrent.
Alternatively, the mic mute might make quieter participants even less likely to contribute. Small asides, words of agreement and ideas that still need fleshing out might not seem worth saying at all, particularly when Zoom and Google are formatted to highlight the speaker as they talk.
Hopefully, though, grid-view and some organization to the meeting can offer a balance. At very least, the need to turn your mic on and off each time we wish to contribute gives us some pause to contemplate whether it’s better to interrupt, or just let things go unsaid.