It’s only 2021, but we may already have the phrase of the decade: “I thought I was on mute.” Or perhaps it’s “Sorry, I was on mute,” or “You’re still on mute.”
For the past year, many Americans have lived and worked remotely, navigating Zoom calls and Slack channels to do our jobs, manage our kids’ school lives, and stay connected with friends virtually.
There has, perhaps, been no larger symbol of virtual life in the pandemic than the mute button.
Think about the number of conversations you’ve had to restart because that dreaded red slash across the microphone icon was enabled, or, maybe worse, the work meeting where a “hot mic” led to an uncomfortable exchange about muting.
Mute button: A love-hate relationship
The mute button has been our auditory wall separating personal and public lives. It allows you to remain professional, shielding colleagues from your barking dog or having to ask your child for the hundredth time to turn in their homework.
It’s also kind of disruptive. Not even the Golden Globes could escape the forgetfulness of unmuting a microphone before speaking.
There’s also the drama linked to when you forget to mute, as Richard Laermer learned the hard way.
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A client of his public relations firm was complaining to him about an assistant during a call, Laermer recalls. At one point, he said to himself, “What is wrong with this lady?”
One problem: He thought he was on mute when he said it. Because he wasn’t muted, his client heard him and responded, leading to a briefly awkward interaction.
“It was quite a jolt – better than coffee even,” said Laermer. “She could tell I was talking about her.”
Yvette Connor, who works near Kansas City, Kansas, for a consultancy firm, found herself scrambling to find the mute button on a call with a client after one of her management employees was rambling about conspiracy theories related to last year’s presidential election.
“It took me 45 seconds to mute him, as I knocked over a glass of water in my attempt to quickly mute him the first time,” said Connor.
Many of us have suffered embarrassing moments on Zoom, whether being a little too at home from home or using your “parent voice”scolding your kids while unmuted on a work call.
Connor said she believes part of the reason is our attention is being stretched so thinly. “I think people are not listening during these meetings,” she said. “Multitasking has gone to an exponential level.”
But for others, that ability to mute has allowed us to have some form of control in an unpredictable pandemic where home and work lives come closer than ever.
Jeremy Eisengrein, a communications professional based in New Jersey, said the mute button has been helpful as he navigates various videoconferencing tools.
“I adopted a dog in October, and you never know when a passing truck or delivery will spark some barking,” said Eisengrein. “Luckily, a lot of my co-workers are very understanding of this.”
Eisengrein also said he has a new respect for parents trying to juggle jobs and family. “It’s never uncommon to see a child appear in the background of a video chat and the parent quickly go on mute to answer their kids’ question.”
Too much mute a ‘cavern of silence’
Is it possible all this muting can be a bad thing? Sigal Barsade, a professor of management at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who studies emotions and relationships at work, said our remote work environments have impacted how employees come together as a group.
One of the ways that can happen is through what Barsade calls “emotional contagion,” an automatic process of how people “catch” emotions from each other through nonverbal cues.
Among those cues is vocal tone, which can get lost in a “cavern of silence” when everyone is muted.
“One of the hardest things with muting is that you have taken away one of the key components to being able to catch other people’s emotions, which bring that group emotion, which make people feel like they are together,” said Barsade.
Our remote worlds can also make it tougher to brainstorm creatively, said Catherine Tinsley, a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
“We have to be much more intentional about group meetings and much more intentional about who’s speaking and when we’re speaking,” said Tinsley. “And I think as a leader in a group meeting, it forces you to be a little bit more intentional about taking charge and equalizing the amount of time speaking.”
Barsade said when she can, she’ll request people remain unmuted during calls to absorb all those background noises.
As for Laermer, he’s paying closer attention to that mute button. “I push mute all the time before I even begin talking.”
Follow Brett Molina on Twitter: @brettmolina23.