Culture lessons from Zoom

Like a lot of people, I have been living my life via Zoom. I’ve had the privilege of working in multiple international teams, across different contexts and Zoom meetings seem to provide a great way to observe some of these cultural differences. Zoom meetings can be difficult at the best of times, especially as a lot of the social behaviours we rely on in different settings are not available to us. Also, because everyone is being watched all the time (if in gallery view), you seem to be able to observe a lot more at once. This makes cultural differences seem even more apparent.

A part of it is the newness of frequent Zoom calls. One thing I have learnt is that no matter how long you have been in a culture, is that you will never understand all of it. New contexts often have a totally different set of rules. As frequent Zoom calls are a relatively new social phenomenon, we’re still creating Zoom protocols in our own cultural context, let alone working out the others. Also, as behaviour is mostly dictated by our internalised cultural values, these work their way out fairly intuitively in different situations. However, if it is not your own culture, you will have to go through a process of observing how different cultures do it. (You can make some guesses, but there will always be surprises!)

Also (and this is the really tricky part of working cross-culturally), if you are unaware of a particular behaviour, you may not even notice it happening. This means that you might be blissfully unaware of how your behaviour is going against what everyone else is doing.

It’d be interesting to do a study (or, if I’m honest, briefly read the conclusion of one as I don’t have to for that) that looks into these particular behaviours. However, from what I have observed, it seems that culture may affect the following aspects of a zoom call:

  • When you join. Does the meeting start before, dead on time or after? When
  • How you enter. Do you speak straightaway to reassure the host of your arrival or do you wait to avoid interrupting conversations? Do you have your camera on straight away or do you wait until you know who has already entered the call?
  • The role of the host at the start. Do you say hello to everyone as they enter? Do you wait until everyone has arrived to speak?
  • Muting your mic. Do you put your microphone on mute so that you don’t distract or interrupt others? Do you use the unmuting of the microphone to indicate that you want to speak? Do you keep your microphone on so you can interact more naturally and conversationally?
  • Pausing to answer. Do you wait to see if others unmute their mic or indicate in another way they want to speak or do you answer straightaway to avoid awkwardness?
  • Body language. Do you use body language within Zoom calls? What body language do you use and what does it indicate?
  • Leaving a call. Do you say goodbye? Who do you say goodbye to and how many times? Or do you just leave as soon as it ends?
  • Offering technical advice. Are you willing to suggest how to solve technical problems in the Zoom call? Do you remind people to mute/unmute?

Now, obviously, some of this will be personality and some of this will be based on how proficient people are on Zoom.

Understanding Brits on Zoom

I’m only an expert on British culture, so I don’t want to assume things about other cultures and get it wrong. It may have been wiser to say this was “English” culture as Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England have subtle but important differences. Also, these are generalisations, so individuals may do all of these or some (and sometimes none). Another good thing to remember, is that native English speakers from different cultures may not share your culture. The cultures of the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand can be vastly different, for example.

However, here are some things that Brits will have a tendency to do:

  • Arrive between two minutes or two minutes after the time. They want to be punctual and not keep people waiting. However, they may not feel comfortable joining on their own, so may try be acceptably late. An alternative option is that they may arrive early but not turn on their mic or video straightaway. It means “I’m here and ready, but don’t feel the need to talk to me.”
  • They will not announce their arrival. They will wait until they know how many people are there and whether there are conversations going on already. They will wait for a break in conversation before talking to avoid interrupting others.
  • They will usually mute their mic. They don’t want to interrupt others or distract the call with things going on around them. Also, you can indicate you want to speak next by turning on your mic. It get’s a little frustrating if people don’t notice this and jump in and cut the conversation queue. Also, those who don’t mute their mics may make Brits a bit stressed as we can’t tell if they want to speak or not.
  • Body language is still important for Brits. We will usually pause before answering a question to the group to watch who wants to speak. We will look for unmuted mics, people sitting up or leaning forward to show they want to speak. Give Brits a chance to go through this process, because sometimes they might not get a chance to talk at all.
  • We will say a few goodbyes and thank yous. We will probably not say goodbye to individuals but to the group. We will then leave. Sometimes, in very large meetings, we will leave without even announcing it.

This is because of our values of politeness, being fair, not causing a fuss and being private. These will influence how we do Zoom. Other cultures will have different values and they will do it differently. Therefore, openness, equality, spontaneity, hospitality and others might have a role to play. So remember, if they do it differently, they are not being rude or doing it wrong. They are trying to practise other values which their culture says is the priority.

  • If you are a Brit, do you agree with these?
  • How do people from your culture use Zoom?