Alexander McCall Smith's guide to Zoom etiquette (did you know it’s bad form to wave?)

When I was a boy there was a detective by the name of Dick Tracy. He still exists, somewhere in the strange world of immortal comic-book characters, even after having been on active service since 1931, when he was first introduced to the public.

Video conferencing is a form of technology that is relatively new to Alexander McCall Smith and many other people (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Video conferencing is a form of technology that is relatively new to Alexander McCall Smith and many other people (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Like all such characters, he has an enemy intent on being his nemesis, in his case one Flattop Jones, whose ambition it is to murder him.

Tracy also has a girlfriend, Tess Trueheart, whom he married in 1949, and with whom he had a daughter, Bonnie Braids. But more important than this supporting cast was Tracy’s famous two-way wrist radio watch. My ten-year-old self used to gaze with utter longing at pictures of Tracy talking into his wrist device. I knew that such things could never be, but one could always dream.

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This desire for sophisticated gadgets was well-understood by the James Bond author Ian Fleming, whose creation, Q, devised all manner of devices for Sean Connery and his successors.

Car ejector seats and machine guns concealed in Bond’s Aston Martin were but as nothing beside the piece of equipment revealed in Goldfinger – a functioning, car-mounted GPS set that enabled Bond to track the progress of villain Auric Goldfinger on his way to his hideout. That seemed so wildly improbable as to induce sniggers of mocking disbelief. Fun, but impossible.

But then it all happened, and Tracy’s wrist radio seems as primitive as a crystal radio set, while Bond’s GPS arrangements look quaintly cumbersome. Technology has a way of creeping up on us, and making even the inventions of the day before yesterday seem hopelessly old-fashioned.

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Almost within touching distance

Queen Elizabeth II during a video call from Windsor Castle with members of the Armed Forces based across the globe (Picture: Buckingham Palace)

So it has been with Zoom, the video communication platform that has changed the way in which we work and, to an extent, the way in which we conduct our social lives.

Just over a year ago, how many of us had even heard of Zoom, let alone let it into our vocabulary and our lives with such enthusiastic and open arms? Yet here we all are, zooming away several times a day.

Zoom enables us to be in a virtual room together when we are separately in Los Angeles, Melbourne and Edinburgh. The pictures we get of one another may be crystal clear, the sound as bright and undistorted as it would be in a real physical meeting.

Distance shrinks to nothing; all we cannot do – yet – is touch one another or transmit disease. At a distance, teachers can speak to students; doctors can examine patients; business people can haggle and trade; lovers can eye up one another; even weddings and funerals can be attended remotely.

Parish clerk Jackie Weaver became famous after a stormy meeting of Handforth Parish Council (Picture: Handforth Parish Council/PA Wire)

And yet like any technological innovation, Zoom raises issues. One of these is the question of Zoom etiquette, something I only discovered existed two days ago. Prior to that, I had, like many, I suspect, been using Zoom without knowing what one should do or not do.

Superstition or shibboleth?

And then, quite politely, somebody told me that I should not wave goodbye on Zoom – something I have been doing for a whole year without realising the solecism that I was committing.

Apparently, you just don’t do that, and the same goes for the moment when you first see the other participants on a call. I have been waving to them with unconcealed delight at the sheer miracle of the technology. That, apparently, is not only a very uncool thing to do, it is just plain bad Zoom manners.

I am not sure about that, and I suspect that the rule – if it is a rule – has as much reason to it as the rule that applies in German bourgeois circles against cutting a potato with a knife or, in America, against wearing white shoes after Labour Day.

These things are superstitions or shibboleths, and are usually nonsense. However, some of the other rules of Zoom etiquette do have some basis in ordinary manners, simply applied to a new technical setting.

The first of these is that you should be aware that you are on camera. This means that you should not make a Zoom call in a state of undress. Courtesy, apparently, requires that you do not look too dishevelled, as you are projecting yourself into somebody else’s space and, in general, people prefer cleanliness and neatness.

There are stories, though, of people taking shortcuts in this respect and wearing clothes on the upper part of their bodies, while Zooming naked below the waist. That is a matter of self-respect and moral integrity. Not to wear pants while making a Zoom call, even if you know the camera is only going to show what appears above the desk, is an act of deception. You are, in effect, laughing at the unawareness of the person to whom you are talking. That, in strict Kantian terms, is wrong.

Cheesy fake background images

Zoom etiquette also requires that you should ask people if they fancy a Zoom call with you, rather than inflict it upon them without enquiring as to whether it will be welcomed. There are many people who suffer from Zoom fatigue, and can think of nothing worse than having yet another Zoom call after they have spent the entire day in employment-related Zoom meeting rooms.

Can you decline somebody’s offer of a Zoom conversation? The answer is almost certainly yes, but you should do so tactfully, blaming bandwidth issues. “I would love to talk to you, but I don’t have the bandwidth” is a perfectly acceptable thing to say. It is, in strict Kantian terms, a lie, but etiquette sometimes justifies hypocrisy and being economical with the bandwidth.

Finally, you should never fake your background. Zoom allows you to put yourself in front of a picture of Everest, or in space, or with a favourite celebrity. That is what is regarded in Zoom circles as “cheesy”. Putting yourself in front a picture of a large wedge of Parmesan, as I have seen done, is particularly cheesy.

You should also refrain from throwing out the pulp fiction and putting impressive-looking books on the shelves behind you. If you are reading Dick Francis, then let people see that – don’t make them think you read David Hume. Of course, if you are zooming with an author, make sure that you have his or her books on the shelves behind you. That is common courtesy.

Zoom is full of pitfalls. If in doubt, use the telephone, which is far simpler, can be used even when you are in the bathroom, and will still be around when all this is over.

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