Zoom and the lost art of interruption

The greatest of biographies, all 1,200 pages of it, is reducible to some quick flurries of dialogue. When the star of The Life of Samuel Johnson speaks unimpeded, you can almost picture Boswell and the rest gazing thirstily at the alehouse taps. The experience for the reader is hardly less of a drag. It is when their jousting cross-talk starts that the myth of Georgian London — each tavern an intellectual smithy — becomes not just plausible, but alive.

Interruption, or at any rate the anticipation of it, is what keeps Johnson and his crew sharp. It is telling how many of his canonical lines (“You have desert enough in Scotland”) come in staccato exchanges.

My grievances with the world of online meetings are several and bitter. The sound is tinny. The hilarity of intruding pets and children has run its course as a comedic genre. The two-dimensional camera undersells the warp and weft of my hair. Of all the crimes of Zoom, though, much the worst is its chilling effect on interruption. To cut across someone is to risk that grim dance of confusion in which both parties talk simultaneously for a few seconds. It is the spoken equivalent of colliding pedestrians mirroring each other’s movements as they try to get past. Even the feigned obsequiousness (“No, you first, please”) is the same. And so we stay our tongues.

The cost will never be quantifiable. But it is no less real for that: in thoughts held back until they are forgotten (or worse, over-rehearsed), in grandstanders licensed to burble on, in an absence of the pressure and jeopardy that hones our speech without our quite knowing it. When it is one-sided or maps on to an existing inequity — man to woman, rich to poor — interruption can stink. It is just that its creative uses get lost in the condemnation.

If the problem were confined to the work calls, I could live with it, but it afflicts the social ones no less. Looking back, the richest conversations I have ever had with friends must have struck the adjoining tables as teetering on hostile. (Especially if they were lined with Americans, a culture that tends to underrate how polite it is by world standards.) But it was in that edge, that hair-trigger restlessness to cut in, to shoot down a lame phrase, that all the substance of those evenings lived. And because we know that, we have hardly bothered with video meetings of late. Better wait for the real thing than take it in turns to speak. We are not interviewing each other for a job. We are not confessing addictions.

“Banter”, in the British sense, is traduced now, pegged as it is to lad culture at its most feral. The word itself has become a kind of banter. But there was always more to it than the bawdy jokes. Anyone who has been on its business end knows that it is really just an impatience with meandering or soft-headed speech: it is interruption as conversational hygiene. It forces you to ensure the seaworthiness of a comment before putting it out. It forces you to think at pace. Video calls, which entail a second’s wait to see if a joke even lands, have none of its tautness. Companies that now swear by them make me wonder how stilted and clunky their meetings had been in real life. (Did they have to pass around a cushion to speak?) The social circles who have embraced them are yet harder to fathom.

I wonder if either market will survive a return to normal life. This week, the share price of Zoom and its rivals fell upon news of the promising Pfizer vaccine. But even before, as the novelty wore off, it was less and less obvious what distinguishes a video call from a phone call. Even with full sight of someone’s face, it is not much easier to spot the minute clues that constitute real-time feedback or brace you for an interruption. Sometimes it is a twinge of the brow or a lift of the finger. Sometimes it is just a shift in the atmosphere. Either way, the pressure keeps us honest. Even history’s greatest talkers were bores without it.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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