The Internet is making us all a little more rude these days and there’s a good chance we don’t even know it.  This has nothing to do with texting while driving or blogging about gossip – it’s much more insidious. It is related to using Skype, Vonage and other types of Voice-over-IP (VoIP) on international calls, so if you’re using VoIP phones or you lead virtual teams, there’s a good chance you’re at risk.

As you probably know, the Internet and major telecommunications systems use fiber optic cables, wireless networks and satellite systems that travel near the speed of light, yet they are still limited by distance, the number of hops and the speed of the equipment to determine how long it takes for information to reach your computer. Loosely speaking, this is called latency, and its higher over longer distances and lower over shorter distances.

Because of latency, on a good day, it takes about 1/5 of a second for a single piece of information containing your voice, called a packet, to travel from New York City to Los Angeles and 1/3 of a second from the U.S. to India (Verizon SLAs)– theoretically not too bad if you’re looking to hold a conversation. Unfortunately, the problem is that you’re not just sending one voice packet when you talk, you’re sending thousands. Those thousands of little bitty packets take multiple directions to reach their destination, once they reach the destination they’re reassembled into your voice, and only then are they heard by the person on the other end. This all adds up to between a ¾ and 1½ second delay between when you speak and when your voice is heard. Of course, it can be quite a bit worse when there are bottlenecks on the Internet, so a 2 or 3 second delay is not out of the question, as this article about latency posted at Sat Magazine concludes.

Latency alone is just a technological problem, and not a very big one – until you add human beings into the mix.  A 1½ second delay might not seem like very long, but there is a magic threshold at around 1 second that dramatically changes the shape of human conversations, according to Maryam Alavi, who conducted pioneering research into technology-aided learning in the 1990’s. Consider that, in a typical conversation between two people in the same room, interrupting that person mid-sentence is considered to be rude, while a 1 second pause is usually a signal to the other person that you’re opening up the opportunity for them to respond to your last statement. Similarly, if you have been speaking and the other person does NOT respond within a few seconds, it becomes a pregnant pause.

Conclusion:  Latency + human conversation = unintentionally rude behavior.

For better understanding, here are a some examples of how VoIP conversations, particularly conference calls, have been misread:

  • During a conference call, no one speaks for a full second, so I started to talk. Unfortunately, three other people on the call heard a 1-second pause and started to speak, as well. Suddenly, four people are speaking at once – which is often interpreted as disrespectful.
  • During another conference call, I don’t hear anyone speak for nearly two seconds, so I start to talk. However, the person speaking didn’t actually pause — their voice packets were delayed — so they haven’t finished speaking. When I chimed in, their speech suddenly continued, and I appeared to be interrupting them.
  • During a VoIP call, a person in the room with me spoke for around thirty seconds and then waited for a response. A second, two seconds and then three seconds passed, yet nothing was heard on the other end. Were they offended by what you said? Was it so earth-shattering that they couldn’t think of a response? Did the line suddenly drop?
  • During a conference call, four people in a remote location are in a single room and are using a half-duplex speaker phone (described by HelloDirect). They speak and speak within their conference room, never pausing to allow communication to flow the other direction.  On your side, people are practically yelling in to the phone, but nothing they say can be heard. As a result, the people onyour end think they are being ignored by the other group.

The bad news about all of these situations is that centuries, if not millennia, of human communication have wired us to interpret interruptions and long pauses in speech as rude, but the technology is in many ways introducing the problem.

The good news is that there is a way we can deal with the problem – the international pause. The international pause means pausing for an extra second or two before speaking on a VoIP call, particularly on international conference calls, in order to avoid interrupting someone else speaking.  In short, it’s a way to counteract the effects of latency that occur on IP telephone calls crossing international boundaries.

Using the international pause is simple:

  1. When you start a meeting that uses VoIP or crosses international boundaries, remind people that there are often lags in communication due to the Internet and that it may be a good idea to wait a little longer before jumping in on a conversation.
  2. As a meeting facilitator, remind people to take more frequent pauses when speaking, so that others will have an opportunity to ask questions or make comments. In addition, consciously ask all participants if they have comments or questions before moving on from one subject to the next.
  3. Take an international pause yourself – before speaking, count an extra second or two, then start to talk.

While we could all wait for technology gurus to overcome the problems of latency with VoIP, there’s a great deal of benefit in IP telephone products like Skype, which dramatically reduce communication costs and enable virtual teams to function effectively while spanning the globe. In order to use this new technology effectively without causing strife among virtual teams, however,  it’s important to take an international pause on your VoIP phone calls.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at