I can’t hear during conference calls because of munching and bag-crinkling

A reader writes:

This is a relatively minor thing, but it has been bugging me lately and has gotten to the point where I can’t ignore it anymore.

I work remotely and dial in to a lot of meetings in our main office. I use headphones when dialing in so as not to disturb the people working around me. The problem is that in one weekly meeting (one of many), there is someone there who likes to sit near the conference call mic and graze on snack food, often from crinkly cellophane bags.

On my end, the crinkling and crunching is louder than anything else and interferes with my ability to follow what’s going on. If I turn up the volume to better hear the voices in the room, the crinkling becomes deafening. I’m generally the only one dialing in to this call, so it’s probable that the people on the other end are completely unaware of this.

It’s a tricky thing to raise because I don’t want to come off as difficult, or have people thinking that I’m judging someone for snacking in a meeting. I really don’t care about that, I’ve snacked on calls with a muted mic myself. I just wish whoever it is would sit further away from the mic since they always seem to be right on top of it.

I was thinking of raising it as a general thing: “You may not be aware, but that mic is hypersensitive to peripheral noise, especially coming from anything near it on the table, and that can make it hard for me to hear what’s going on sometimes. Would it be okay if I flagged when this happens in our chat so we can try to limit it?”

Do you think that would work, or is there a better way for me to address it?

You’re over-thinking it.

It’s totally fine to just say, “Hey, it sounds like like someone is eating something from a crinkly bag, and it’s magnified on the mic and making it hard to hear.”

Seriously, you don’t need to dance around this. This kind of thing gets said on conference calls all the time, and it’s fine to just throw it out there without a lot of diplomacy around it.

And in fact, I would not dance around it because you risk the message being lost altogether. Your proposed wording about peripheral noise and asking if it would be okay if you flagged it is making too big a deal out of it, and the person responsible may not even realize you’re talking about them.

“I’m having trouble hearing because it sounds like a food bag is being crinkled right by the mic.” That’s it, really.

You’re not going to seem difficult or judgy. It’s a conference call, you can’t hear, you’re alerting people, done.

{ 152 comments… read them below }

  1. ashleyh*

    My team all works remotely and we have a weekly conference call – we are BIG fans of the “mute” button and are quick to call people out if someone is outside/eating/whatever and is causing background noise.

    Since you’re the only person dialing in, I’m assuming everyone is in one room and you’re on the phone/polycom. They probably don’t even realize you can hear it! Seriously, not a big deal!

      1. Joline*

        Yesterday I was in a meeting with two boardrooms and a couple of people in individual offices on a video call and a colleague didn’t realize that he’d unmuted himself when he took an unrelated phone call. Everyone had a good chuckle until someone could figure out how to mute him (since he probably muted us to take the call we couldn’t tell him).

        1. Adonday Veeah*

          I remember working a conference when the speaker stepped off the podium for the next speaker, but forgot to take off his mike. His next stop was the men’s room. Staff got to him after the sound of the zipper but before anything else was heard.

          1. KR*

            I film government committee meetings. We installed a switch on the mic that lights up when the mic is on so that the members could mute the mic if they needed to cough or do some noisy thing. Of course the problem is that half of them can’t be bothered to remember how a microphone works so they either turn it off and forget to turn it on again or don’t bother to mute it and have the noisiest grossest coughs all over live television.

            1. Snazzy Hat*

              I had a nearby coworker who previously worked in a customer service call center. Her current job involves -some- phone communication. I overheard her on the phone one day while she was coughing, and she was impressively fast with the mute button. “Talk talk talk [beep] cough cough [beep] talk talk [beep] cough-while-listening-to-other-person [beep] talk talk.” It was seamless. When the call ended, I gave her kudos.

              1. Snuffy*

                Maybe she uses a push-to-talk function (like a walkie-talkie), which is an absolute life saver if you live on conference calls but spend most of your time listening.

          2. Snazzy Hat*

            I love when things that happen on The Simpsons happen in real life. Homer was in a motion-capture suit on stage for a demo; his avatar (a cartoon dog) was on the screen. When he was done, he walked off stage and headed to the men’s room, still in the suit, still with the microphone on. The continued video, with his back to the audience, made it obvious he was at a urinal, attempting to dissolve the urinal cake.

            Congratulations on having a speedy staff at your conference! Yeesh!

      2. Lia*

        Me too, by my BOSS. We were on the same call but in our own offices. Whoops. Luckily, all he could hear from me was keyboard clicks.

    1. JessaB*

      Yeh every conference we had, we were expected to be on mute unless we were specifically talking, even some people breathing or sneezing can make an issue with hearing things. The problem only really comes up when it’s at the central desk where a bunch of people are sitting around and there IS no mute because they have that mic box in the centre of the table. I agree with Alison that it’s perfectly reasonable to say “I can hear whoever is eating. Hey Jo please don’t mumble and face away from the mic, I have no idea what you’re saying,” etc.

  2. Carolina*

    I don’t think I have ever been on a call where someone doesn’t ask someone else to turn on mute, move away from the speaker or stop crinkling a bag.

    1. Meredith*

      I was going to say just that. It’s totally common on my conference calls for someone to just make a friendly request to mute a mic that’s picking up ambient noise. It’s not being difficult – it’s in line with conference call etiquette. If they’re not aware of the problem, how else would they know to stop?

    2. Anna*

      Yeah. It’s said before (and usually during) every conference call I’m on. I’m paranoid about it and can’t understand how nobody else thinks to mute.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      The few calls I have done, I was greeted and then told I would be muted. We could type messages if need be. There was a Q and A session at the end, I think that was usually not muted.

  3. The IT Manager*

    Just tell them that someone appears to be eating right next to the mic and you can’t hear because of the noise.

    That won’t appear to be a judgemental statement on snacking in meetings or in general just a point of fact that you unable to hear because of noise.

    1. sunny-dee*

      Yeah, it’s no different than asking someone to move the room phone because the person talking is too far away from the mic.

    2. TootsNYC*

      or don’t say “eating right next to”; just state the problem as you perceive it:

      “There’s too much crinkling coming over the microphone–I can’t hear.”

      1. Snazzy Hat*

        Agreed. Sensitive mic + person eating chips from a bag + person nearest the phone NOT eating anything + “someone appears to be eating next to the phone” = person nearest the phone feeling annoyed at being falsely accused of eating.

  4. Madtown Maven*

    Oh, we just had one where the presenter (who was supposed to be training us for a software application) kept yawning into his headset. Wow. We’ve requested a different trainer for next session.

    1. The Alias Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.*

      I took an online course where the instructor used the mic on her laptop and then typed very loudly on said laptop throughout every class meeting, and she insisted that we meet weekly. I still hate her.

  5. ThursdaysGeek*

    It was kind of awkward when they were planning on testing the fire alarms, handed out ear plugs, but the the alarm didn’t go off the first time until I was on a scheduled conference call. No, I wasn’t on mute, but I hit it pretty fast. And then had to explain and apologize.

  6. Nina*

    Yeah, this is a fair thing to bring up, especially if there’s a chance the person on the other line can hear it.

    It was mentioned here a while back that the sound of the bag is usually louder than the eating itself. Putting the snack on a napkin instead of eating it straight out of the bag makes a big difference.

    1. Kelly L.*

      And if you try to open it slowly and quietly to be considerate, Murphy’s Law dictates that it’ll actually be even louder than if you just tore it all at once.

    2. Snazzy Hat*

      At least one of the theatre/classical music places I visit has a pre-show announcement which includes “please unwrap your lozenges at this time”.

  7. Chriama*

    Agreed, you’re way overthinking this. I’ve been on calls where I’ve said “There’s some background noise and I can’t hear you.” The issue is them, not you, and it’s in everyone’s interest for all the people on the call to be able to hear and understand what’s being discussed. Say it straightforwardly, they’ll deal with it straightforwardly, and everyone’s happy.

  8. Always muted*

    Not a problem to mention the noise that is making it hard to hear the conference.

    If you’re afraid of sounding judgmental why not just mention that there is “noise” of some sort and that you cannot hear. You don’t need to identify what it is – let them figure it out. Then mention what it sounds like only if they ask.

    Seriously, I run conference calls all the time and EVERY time I have to remind folks to use the mute button or keep their keyboard and other “noise makers” away from the phone. (such a disclaimer is a part of my email scheduling the conference call)

    It has also gotten to the point where, when I ask a question and don’t hear an answer, I remind them to take mute off.

    P.S. and don’t get me started on those folks who put the conference call “on hold” so that we all hear their office’s hold music!

    1. sam*

      my favorite is the guy who puts our monthly call on hold, such that none of us can continue the call, and we all have to drop the call, wait a full five minutes for the call to kill itself, and then dial back in. if someone accidentally dials in at 4 minutes and 55 seconds, we have to restart the clock.

      And yes, in theory, sending around another dial-in would be better, but it’s an international call with India, with about 40 participants, and so we have a special tie line set up for this call.

      Or the random person who takes another call while still on a group conference call and forgets to put their phone on mute, resulting in a chorus of “_______, we can hear you, put your phone on mute!”

      But yes, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a call that has *not* included at least one reminder for people to put their phones on mute if they’re not talking, because the mics pick up shuffling papers/etc.

      Also, if your team is on one of those polycoms, they often have extension arms that have their own mute buttons, so they can mute the little extended arms that they’re sitting near that are picking up noise without muting the entire room.

      1. Anon for this*

        Recently, the presenter for a conference call I was on got a call from his wife. On his other line. It went to his answering machine. Not voice mail – machine – because you remember how those things play as they record so you can hear the caller if you were there but just missed the phone?

        Yeah. “(Name), I know you’re there. Pick up the phone!” And on for…several seconds until he excused himself, put us on mute, and took the call.

      2. Judy*

        For our conference calls, if you’re running the application, the presenter or the host can mute others. And you can see which lines are making noise (microphone icon next to name), so you can tell the one that has the hold music on it.

        1. Judy*

          And even when the host is not on the application, there’s a code to get the operator who can then kill the offending connection.

        2. sam*

          I think for either web-based calling or operator-assisted calls that would work, but we each have a permanently assigned dial-in number for “regular” calls that is old-school telephone based, and they’re basically not facilitated.

        3. The Cosmic Avenger*

          I’ve had to ask the presenter to mute people on my last two GoToMeeting conferences. I even sent a private chat message to each of the offenders first, asking them to mute their mics, and they were oblivious.

    2. animaniactoo*

      I won’t get you started – considering that was the thing I was going to say! I’ve had it happen in no less than 4 dial-in webconference presentations. And it’s never just for a minute or 2, it’s somebody who’s putting the call on hold to “show” they were there, and not listening to a word of it. For the next half hour.

      I would have thought that it was obvious that if your company has hold music, doing this is idiotic.

      Worse, of course, are the presenters who don’t know how to mute everyones lines with their “host” tools, and then sit there talking over the LOUD HOLD MUSIC.

    3. Chriama*

      > If you’re afraid of sounding judgmental why not just mention that there is “noise” of some sort and that you cannot hear.

      Seriously, this is not effective. OP, are you a woman? This fear of sounding judgemental and overthinking normal requests in an effort to be unnaturally polite sounds like someone who has either been socialized to be too “nice”, is in their first job and unsure of professional norms, and/or is in an environment that is so hostile and passive aggressive that they’ve lost sight of normal behaviours. Don’t continue on in that vein, it will make it hard for you to be taken seriously or do your job well.

        1. Chriama*

          Fair enough, maybe it’s a personality type. And maybe I’m responding more to the other comments suggesting softening behaviour than to the OP herself (and maybe I’m just in a fighting frame of mind after reading the article a commenter in your last post linked to about the “no” woman), but I feel like if you can’t be assertive about this then what can you be assertive about? There must be some sort of real or perceived power imbalance or social dynamic at play here for such a small thing to become such a big issue, right?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think sometimes people just feel rude about asking others to change their behavior, even when others see it as a totally reasonable thing to ask for. (That’s my husband’s deal. Which drives me crazy.)

            Other times, I think it can be about the person being early-ish in their career and just not totally clear yet on what’s okay to ask/assert.

            1. Always muted*

              I was thinking the same thing – the OP is “early-ish” in their career; or that being the only one dialing in and didn’t want to be a PIA.

              Again, I deal with conference calls more than most people and make more of an effort to involve those “distance” folks than most people would. But, I could totally see some lame manager who doesn’t deal with conference calls all that often seeing the distance person as being demanding when they are simply asking for (what to me anyway) seems like common courtesy.

            2. TootsNYC*

              Also, I think sometimes people get annoyed at the behavior, and then the presence of that annoyance makes them worry that they’re being unfair, or afraid they won’t be able to speak up while keeping that annoyance out of their voice.

            3. Chriama*

              I agree on the early career thing. And now that I think about it, I had a dickens of a time telling my personal trainer I wanted to meet earlier in the day instead of during the evening. Like, I agonized over that email for hours. So everyone has their ‘thing’ that seems totally minor to outsiders but huge to ourselves.

            4. BritCred*

              The other possibility is that they are like me and suffer misaphonia. Which makes you very aware that reacting to these things is something that a lot of people don’t do and therefore struggle to ask people to stop it and upset them when its *your* problem. I agree on a conference call it needs to be stopped though and wouldn’t see anything wrong with someone saying “there is some background noise on the call which is making it difficult to hear clearly, is that a line fault or is there a cause at your end?.

      1. Always muted*

        Chriama, do you think my comment was gender related? I didn’t mean it to be, I was going by the OP’s own stated feelings about not wanting to sound judgmental about snacking. Just mention that the noise prevents you from hearing. period.

        And why do you think this wouldn’t be effective?

        1. Turtle Candle*

          I would also worry that speaking generally about ‘noise’ wouldn’t work. In my experience (I work remotely) it’s very difficult for someone in an in-person meeting to figure out what’s coming across as particularly loud (or, for that matter, particularly quiet) to people on the phone. Bag crinkling that is really pretty quiet in person can be deafening over the phone, or, to use another example, one time the problem was an air conditioner vent right above the mic–it was totally unnoticeable white noise to the people in the room, but caused loud wind tunnel effects over the phone. In that case I couldn’t explain exactly what noise was the problem because I had no idea what was causing the wind tunnel effect (and we didn’t figure it out until they started moving the mic around and discovered by trial and error that moving it out from under the vent solved the problem), but that experience means that I tend to think that, if you do know what the sound is, it’s most efficient to just tell them than to have an accidental guessing game.

          1. Us, Too*

            Yes, this is true. I have even experienced the exact same A/C vent problem! I had to stop a conference call because there was a huge amount of static/noise coming from someone on the line. I said something like “I’m hearing a huge amount of static sound. Like someone’s using speakerphone on a motorcycle.” An attendee chimed in with “oops, yes, that’s me. The A/C just came on and the vent is right over my desk. I’ll mute”.

            Now THAT is a powerful vent! lol.

        2. Chriama*

          I didn’t think your comment was specifically gender related. But I think saying there’s a mysterious *noise* is likely to cause more disruption than just pointing out the crinkling sound. People will be trying to figure out what it is, if the muncher doesn’t clue in on the first round then the OP has to keep on interrupting, etc. It’s just simpler to say “I hear some chewing sounds and something that sounds like a chip bag. Can whoever is doing that move a little bit away from the mic?” No judgement, no 20 questions to figure out the mystery sound.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah, it drives me a little crazy to have to talk about gender on every single letter. I get that gender socialization differences are incredibly important, but in terms of giving practical advice, I don’t know that we have to analyze every letter through that lens.

    4. Sadsack*

      Isn’t letting them figure it out just going to drag out getting the noise stopped? Just tell them what you hear and ask for it to stop.

    1. Carolina*

      There is a guy I am on a weekly call with who, I swear, runs on a treadmill while on the call. The panting is ridiculous.

    2. BadPlanning*

      It’s not uncommon for us to use the phrase “Darth Vader” in those cases. “Hey, someone sounds like Darth Vader on the phone, can everyone go on mute?”

      1. Jinx*

        We have a late-night call every few months for change windows, and occasionally someone will fall asleep and start snoring into the mike. Usually the rest of us are so slap-happy / sympathetic that we find it amusing.

        1. Cath in Canada*

          I once had a dream that I fell asleep during one of my ridiculously early calls and started talking in my sleep, and that everyone was laughing at me. I woke up with a start, relieved that it had all been a dream. Then I looked at my phone and saw a bunch of emails from people on the call, all laughing at me. Then I woke up again, for real this time. Dreams within dreams are the worst!

          1. alter_ego*

            I was once late for work because I dreamed that I had been fired, so when I woke up, I was like, “well crap, I was fired, but at least I get to sleep in”, and I rolled over and went back to sleep. it was about 45 minutes before my brain jolted me awake with “no alter_ego, the firing was a dream!”

            1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

              Ugh, I had a dream the other night that I got to work but was falling asleep from utter exhaustion. I was super stressed about it but still couldn’t stay awake. I felt so relieved when I actually woke up a little and realized that I’m on vacation this week!

            2. Tau*

              My dreams tend to be absurdly realistic and mundane, which has the unfortunate side effect that I frequently wake up extremely confused about whether I really did do laundry yesterday/left leftovers in the fridge for lunch/did enough overtime yesterday that I can flex my time to come in later today/etc. or whether I just dreamed I did. That firing dream absolutely could have happened to me!

              1. Snazzy Hat*

                I am so relieved to learn I’m not alone when it comes to really bizarre long-winded dreams that have to do with work or home but make no sense. While I was in college, just before every semester until my last (eighth) year I would have multiple dreams where I was several -weeks- late to class, and most of the settings looked -nothing- like my college campus. I still have dreams about a job from which I resigned over a year ago; in some dreams I still work there, in others I don’t but for some reason have way too much autonomy.

        2. Janice in Accounting*

          I fell asleep on a conference call once, I had the flu and was still trying to work from home. No one ever mentioned having heard snoring, so hopefully they didn’t notice!

      2. AMG*

        Darth Vader is the worst! I feel bad saying something on those. ‘Hey, can you please control your breathing? You sound like a wild ox in heat, Veronica.’ the. worst.

      3. Jojo Potatoe*

        Oh man! Years ago, we had a breather on a call with a lot of people where the host either didn’t know how to mute or planned to just ignore it and hope it stopped.

        We all had the ability to draw/write on a shared virtual whiteboard, though, and after a few minutes, many people typed requests to mute. The best one was this: “Lord Vader, is that you?”

    3. ella*

      There was a Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me celebrity guest (they often call in) who was doing this. It stopped the show, not so much because of the breathing itself, but because the audience and the panelists were all laughing inappropriately while trying to sound like they weren’t. Peter Sagal tried to get his message across indirectly with jokes before he finally had to say, “Could you please stop breathing into your phone?” It was hilarious then, but I can see it being totally terrible on a conference call.

    4. Person of Interest*

      I used to work with someone who called in for the weekly staff meeting and frequently was “audibly sleeping” throughout the meeting.

  9. Allison*

    I agree with AAM, there’s nothing wrong with coming out and saying that there’s a lot of background noise making it difficult to hear people, and say that it sounds like someone’s eating from a crinkly bag or something. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable speaking up in meetings, you could mention the issue to whoever’s in charge (depending on how the team is set up) and see if they can say something to the offending snacker. This is a pretty easy problem to fix.

    That said, I think this person is being inconsiderate. I’m not a fan of eating during meetings unless food is provided or you have some health condition that requires you to eat at that time, and I think if you do need to eat during a meeting, it shouldn’t be something noisy like chips. Whoever’s doing this probably doesn’t need to be, and if they do, they can at least do it far away from the mic.

    1. Chriama*

      > Or, if you don’t feel comfortable speaking up in meetings, you could mention the issue to whoever’s in charge (depending on how the team is set up) and see if they can say something to the offending snacker.

      Being indirect makes this a bigger deal. Maybe it’s not the same person every week. Or maybe they don’t know who the snacking person is, or they’re someone really high up. Point it out in the moment, they move the bag slightly back, and the conversation goes on. Any effort to tiptoe around the issue stands out because it’s such a *minor* thing. I mean, this isn’t like a manager having to tell one of their employees that they have B.O.

      Also, I think eating during meetings is one of those etiquette things that’s really situational. A meeting where you’re a main participant? You probably want to be focused on asking/answering questions. A status update meeting where you spend most of the time on mute checking your emails? Go ahead and snack. An in-person meeting with the president of your division talking about how you’re all going to be fired if you don’t increase productivity by 500%? You don’t want to catch his attention by being singled out as a solitary snacker. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of eating in meetings. You don’t know how that person’s day has been going, or whether they’ve been in back to back meetings all morning with no time for lunch. Save the judgement for stuff that matters.

    2. neverjaunty*

      Or, maybe they’re starving because they’ve been putting out fires for the entire day, didn’t get lunch or a break, and know they aren’t going to get to eat for another few hours because of this damn conference call, so they’re trying to wolf down a tiny bag of stale airline pretzels they found lurking in a desk drawer.

      In any event, nobody WANTS to mess up anybody’s conference call, so pointing out that you can hear the bag noises is always appropriate.

      1. Anna*

        Every time they have the call? Pretty unlikely, doncha think?

        Either way, OP, it’s okay to bring it up.

        1. Beezus*

          I can’t say I’ve done it consistently in the same recurring meeting, but I can say that I’ve had swaths of days that were so busy that if I didn’t eat in one of my meetings, I wouldn’t have eaten.

        2. neverjaunty*

          In LW’s case? No idea. I was responding to the commenter who thought it was rude for anyone to ever eat bagged snacks during a meeting.

    3. Us, Too*

      I had a five hour meeting today with no breaks. NO BREAKS! I ended up eating my lunch in front of colleagues after the meeting ended. Truly, nobody cared. This is pretty common in my job/company.

        1. Us, Too*

          Yes, actually. And, it’s a periodic meeting so I get to do it again. Lots of times! Yay! Fortunately, we were asked for feedback after the meeting – everyone really does want to improve over time here. I pointed out that breaks need to be scheduled for next time. In response to my feedback,the meeting coordinator said that he assumed we would all take breaks whenever we wanted/needed to. Well, yeah, that’s great but with a gazillion people doing that, it’s very disruptive. Plus, the reason I was in the meeting was because I needed to listen and contribute. What if I leave to take a break and in my absence miss something important? I’m optimistic that we’ll have scheduled breaks next time. I hope. :)

  10. A Bug!*

    Yup. If you didn’t need to hear the discussion, then you don’t need to be dialing into the meeting in the first place. “Hey, can’t hear” is pretty much the reasonable thing to say when you can’t hear a conversation you’re participating in.

    The other people at the meeting are assuming you can hear the discussion. Nobody’s going to realize that you might need to be filled in on something and you’re not going to know if you missed something critical.

    Look at it the same way you would if you were getting static over the line, or someone’s voice was too muffled to hear.

  11. HR Director*

    When this happens during our conference calls, I just say, “Can everyone mute their phone when they aren’t talking. There is too much background noise.” This generally immediately solves the problem, and no one has ever taken offense.

  12. Chocolate lover*

    One of my coworkers was once chomping on an apple directly behind me while we were doing a video conference. It was just about in my ear, and extremely distracting. I just turned around and asked her if she could stop. She really just didn’t notice. Though she didn’t actually stop, she just moved away from me, and ended up bothering someone else, but hey, at least it wasn’t in my ear!

  13. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

    Please say something! I used to have one remote team member, who finally admitted she had a hard time hearing over the noise on our team meetings during an O3. She wasn’t sure what it was but it was incredibly distracting.

    We played a game of guess that noise and it turns out it was one of her teammates strumming the corner of his notebook! For those of us in the room, it was unnoticeable, but next to the phone, it was overwhelming.

  14. Dani X*

    In my office someone usually says something like “will the person with the loud keyboard/background noise/dog barking please go on mute.” Of course that only works if that person isn’t in the room with the speaker. I would just say “Someone close to the mic seems to be making a lot of noise – can you move the mic someplace else?”.

  15. Violet_04*

    Agree with all the other comments. Totally normal to say something! With our conferencing software the host has the ability to mute lines which are causing issues. There is also a “*6” option to mute your own line. Then if you need to put the call on hold, they won’t hear the hold music.

  16. videogamePrincess*

    At my company, we had a more direct line:

    “Hey, can you put that on mute? I can hear eating.” No feelings were hurt, and it was completely understood. Everyone did it at some point, everyone got called out on it.

    1. Artemesia*

      I am envisioning the OP being the only one on a phone with everyone else around a speaker set up in the conference room, so that muting is not an option. I agree that vague comments about noise won’t get it — it is a crinkly bag near the mike and that needs to be said.

      1. Bookworm*

        I also understood that to be the situation. Honestly, the long-term solution might just be that this person has to stop snacking during these meetings…but I don’t think that anyone would begrudge OP that. She just needs to voice that it’s much louder on her end that it is on theirs.

        Certainly I’d only feel minimally embarrassed if someone asked me to hold my snacking because they could hear it over the phone. In fact if I discovered that it had been bothering someone for months and they’d never said anything, I’d feel way more on the spot. Whoever is doing it will probably appreciate the heads up.

        1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

          Or snack on quieter snacks. Eating a banana wouldn’t cause the issues a bag of chips does.

      2. I am the overthinker*

        Yes, you’re right. It’s everyone else in a conference room and me dialling in. I feel a lot better about saying something now.

        1. Michaela T*

          I have meetings where I’m the only one calling in, and I’ve overthought asking people to stop making random noises as well. I definitely see where you’re coming from.

  17. Mimmy*

    Ugh this type of thing would send me straight into BEC mode! But I have a different issue… I dialed into one of my regular meetings from home recently (I normally go in person but I had another commitment), and the people who were closest to the mic was constantly rifling through their papers, which would sometimes be louder than the speaker. I think one of them might’ve been our Chair. I can understand crinkling snack bags and crunching, but I feel like complaining about rifling papers seems petty.

    1. Koko*

      It’s not petty! If you can’t hear, you can’t hear – it doesn’t matter what’s causing the noise, and you’re not passing judgment on the activity that’s causing the noise. You’re just saying you can’t hear because of noises near the mic, and asking for them to do what they can to fix that on their end.

    2. Us, Too*

      Agreed. It is not petty! Depending on the conference room and where/how the speakers are configured, very minor and otherwise innocuous sounds can be amplified. It’s really common and NBD.

  18. Cath in Canada*

    Things I’ve heard on teleconferences:

    Traffic noises
    Automated bus stop announcements (definitely mute your line if you’re calling in from a bus!)
    Other phone calls or in-person conversations
    Flushing noises / running water
    Someone’s ringtone, over and over again

    It’s never been a problem to ask people to mute. It’s a bit different when you’re the only one dialling in, but I’ve heard plenty of people who are calling into an in-person meeting ask people to speak up, move the mic etc. It’s just not a big deal.

    *my cat is now known as “the cat whose purr was heard around the world” after I forgot to mute and people started asking what on earth that weird noise was. My other cat once jumped onto my lap and accidentally clawed me while I was talking, making me yelp very loudly. (Apparently everyone thought it was hilarious, but I couldn’t hear them laughing because they were all on mute, and I was mortified!) These calls are at 5:30 am, so it’s still better than going into the office though.

    1. Chriama*

      Bathroom sounds are the worst! I don’t understand why it makes me so uncomfortable, but the other day someone called me while I was in the bathroom and I sat *so* still until the call was over, as if by shifting I might cause a tell-tale squeak of the toilet seat that would unveil my secret shame. I think it’s like picking your nose – it’s ok to do it, but no one should know when you’re doing it.

      1. Irishgal*

        Why on earth are you answering the phone in the bathroom?????? Just because the phone is mobile doesn’t mean it needs to be answered irrespective of your location.

        1. neverjaunty*

          I can’t speak for the previous commenter, but there’s nothing quite like trying to manage a mandatory phone conference when you’re in the middle of a bout of food poisoning.

        2. Jojo Potatoe*

          It is not at all unusual for me to have 3+ hours of back-to-back conference calls in any given day. Short of going full-astronaut and wearing a diaper, peeing with a headset on is a regular occurrence for me. Ten years ago, our older models could lose signal if you strayed too far, which would reset the “mute” setting. Arrrrrrrgh.

        3. Chriama*

          Eh, I don’t see why not. If it’s not a particularly taxing phone call (as in, you don’t need to refer to papers or anything) and you don’t want to go through all the trouble of playing phone tag, and the phone is in your hand anyways because you were on Facebook or playing Angry Birds, why not? It’s not like I need a lot of concentration to use the toilet. I think it’s one of those things that *seems* icky for no definable reason. And because it seems icky I wouldn’t want to disrespect anyone by flaunting that that’s what I’m doing. But at the same time I don’t think it’s disrespectful to be doing it without their knowledge, because there isn’t anything inherently wrong about stuff done in the bathroom. My data doesn’t become less accurate because I’m presenting it from the bathroom.

    2. KR*

      Whenever I’m on speaker phone with someone my cats favorite thing to do is to start meowing into the phone.

      1. videogamePrincess*

        This made me laugh. “My owner isn’t feeding me! Why isn’t my owner feeding me? Will mew?”

      2. Susan*

        I just lost my sweet cat Sunshine. She was a constant meow-er, and combine that with my job entailing being constantly in meetings plus working from home, well… Everybody got to know Sunshine, and would say hi to her.

    3. Ivy*

      I was a few months ago on a telecon with representatives from 25 companies – all pretty senior people. All warned to keep their phones on mute during the presentation. Suddenly somebody flushed a bathroom. Thankfully I wasn’t the presenter at that particular moment because I laughed out loud.

    4. Melissa*

      I did quite a few Skype interviews when I was searching my last job and lived in fear that the moment I started answering a question would be the moment my cat decided to start singing the song of her people!

    5. Meg Murry*

      I’ve heard almost all of Cath’s list on conference calls, plus:

      -The sound of “Welcome to [restaurant] can I take your order?” as someone went through a drive through
      -A whispered, furtive debate as to whether or not to tell the truth about why the project was coming in late or make up a story because someone who thought they were muted wasn’t
      -A rant in the background about what an *expletive-ing expletive expletive* one of the other participants on the call was
      -And more – conference calls can be hysterical, and they can be the worst thing ever

      But back to the OP’s question – you don’t need to call out eating directly, but don’t dance around it either. “Hey everyone, it sounds like there is a bag or some papers crinkling next to the microphone and I can’t hear the person speaking over that sound, could you please check your setup and move whatever is crinkling? Jane, could you repeat your last 2 sentences? Thanks.”

      I’m with everyone else – you are on the call so you can hear what is being said – if you can’t hear, there is no point in you being on the call.

      If you really are adverse to saying something during the meeting (in case it is the client or the biggest bigwig who is the offender), is there someone else you can ask about it now, so they can try to stop it before the next meeting. Could you call and say “Jane, during the weekly calls, I have trouble hearing sometimes because there is some kind of crinkling, like paper or a chip bag near the microphone. Can you do something to try to get that moved away from the microphone?” Then on the next call if you say, I say ‘sorry, I didn’t get that, there was some kind of interference, could you repeat it?’ Jane might be able to move the chip bag away from the mike.

      I’d lean toward saying something now to try to get it to stop, but not being afraid to also say something at the moment that is direct but not accusatory.

      1. AMG*

        OK, you have to tell us what happened after the project people got caught trying to cover up the late project! too funny!

  19. TFS*

    Totally agree about just speaking up and that it’s a normal thing, but want to also say that I get the hesitation that the OP feels. For me it’s a lot easier to ask people to mute their lines when everyone’s calling in and the noise-maker can stay anonymous, but when everyone else is in the same room I would be hyper-aware that I was calling out a specific person in front of everyone. Of course saying something is the right thing and it’s doubtful anyone will care, but OP, I get why this feels hard for you!

  20. Bookworm*

    OP, I think many of us relate. I used to have several weekly conference calls, and stuff like this often came up. I think Alison is right to tell you not to overthink it.

    Hopefully not too off-topic, but this YouTube video ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYu_bGbZiiQ) – A Conference Call in Real Life – made the rounds in my office because it addressed (humorously) a lot of the pitfalls of teleconferencing.

    Definitely worth a watch if you do these phone conferences often.

  21. L McD*

    OH MY GOD. I have sensory issues, and this is bringing up all kinds of memories. I used to work with one guy who’d always “attend” phone meetings from what sounded like a frat party. Another would announce he was “making tea,” and then I’d be subjected to 40 minutes of high-pitched shrieking from whatever torture device he was using to brew it.

    One thing to keep in mind is that, if there’s more than two people on the call, nobody has to cop to it. You’re not embarrassing anyone, you’re just making them aware that the noises can be heard. Any reasonable person will just stop. If they want to apologize to the group, they can, but they can also just quietly put the bag away and no one will be any the wiser. I always worry about putting people in awkward situations, so framing it in those terms helps me.

    1. Bookworm*

      Well, she’s talking to a group of people who are all together – so presumably they would know which one of them was snacking. That said, I think it’s still totally fine for her to ask them to move it away from the mic.

      1. L McD*

        Good call, I missed that. Still, in that case, everybody already knows who’s munching on chips – so presumably it’s not going to be some horrifically embarrassing situation. If they’re really self-conscious they’re probably not chowing down on a bag of chips in front of a room of people anyway. :P

        Source: my own raging anxiety

  22. Chickaletta*

    I’m with Alison, this is such a normal thing to request on a conference call that I’d be surprised if anyone hasn’t heard it said before. In addition to being asked not to eat next to the phone, people are often asked to stop shuffling papers, sit closer to it when they’re speaking (especially when it’s a large group gathered around a speaker phone), and identify themselves everytime they talk so that people on the other end know who’s speaking. Seriously, it’s normal. The point is for everyone to hear what’s being said, the end.

  23. Wendy Darling*

    I was on a team that was spread across several cities so we had TONS of conference calls, and it was totally normal to say “Can whoever is eating a delicious snack please move away from the mic?” or “Sorry Lucinda but your lunch is really loud and I can’t hear.”

    1. Wendy Darling*

      …or in one memorable incident, “Jeez Fiona that package is SO LOUD!” when someone set their biodegradable plastic sandwich packaging right next to the mic. Leading to a brief sidebar about how absurdly loud and crinkly biodegradable plastic is while Fiona took her sandwich out of the wrapper and put it on a paper towel.

        1. Wendy Darling*

          My office’s cafeteria AND the cafeterias where I went to grad school used that same kind of plastic to wrap sandwiches/wraps/etc and it was a huge pain! If anybody planned on eating a sandwich during class (which was totally acceptable) they’d hurry up and unwrap it and throw out the packaging before class started because all speaking had to stop while a sandwich was being unwrapped.

  24. Trainer*

    Most of my team is either remote or calling in from offices around the world. I have heard such a variety of things on these calls: babies crying, dogs barking, coughing fits, tv shows playing, sudden cursing, and food munching. Most of the time its ignored, but when someone can’t hear it’s never been an issue to pipe up and say so.

    Recently when I was hosting a training with well over 100 people on the call, someone didn’t properly switch lines and dialed a phone number and went on to leave a complete voicemail, including their name and a couple other off color (but funny) remarks. I and a few others tried to interrupt him and failed. I reminded everyone to use the mute button after that but it spurred a few minutes of comic relief in the middle of a complex topic right when people needed a brain break.

  25. Gene*

    I don’t do many conference calls, but I had to finally hang up on my wife once because she wouldn’t stop chewing whatever TF she was eating in my ear, even after multiple asks.

  26. Parfait*

    I was on a call the other day and the presenter’s husband started preparing dinner by pounding meat with a mallet. It was the loudest thing ever. I don’t know why he couldn’t start with something quieter until her call ended!

  27. JennyFair*

    It would take me a week to list all of the stupid things I have done or seen/heard done on conference calls–I worked from home for six years. But highlights include the training class where one trainee was heard to say (during a lecture), ‘No, I can talk, I don’t need to listen to any of this bulls—‘, and myself making a snarky comment via IM about something someone said in the meeting…to the person who was screensharing. Clearly not my most brilliant moment.

    I might be tempted to ask the snacker if they had enough to share with the class :)

    1. Cath in Canada*

      Earlier this week, I told a collaborator who’s become a friend that I was changing the subject header of our ongoing email exchange from “WTF X-FILES?!” to something more work-related, because I was going to be screensharing later that day. (The email exchange did include some work-related content, honest!) When I looked at Facebook that evening, I found a rather entertaining thread full of suggestions of what she could email me during the meeting that would be more embarrassing than “WTF X-FILES?!” Luckily she managed to restrain herself.

  28. I am the overthinker*

    And I’m relieved to hear it. Thank you Alison, and everyone!

    Part of the problem is having had very little non-remote interaction with the team. I’m on-site this week and it’s helped me notice how much I was overthinking things like this. My team won’t think I’m a loon or being difficult if I just tell them about the noise.

    It was a classic case of analysis-paralysis. Thank you all for helping me snap out of it!

  29. Not So NewReader*

    OT. I was just thinking to myself the numbers of times we say, “you are overthinking this” and it’s meant as a reassurance as in “no, you are okay here”. But how do we identify overthinking when we see it? If we had to describe to a new worker what overthinking looks like how would we do that?

  30. MissDisplaced*

    LOL! This happens all the time on our web calls too. I’ve even had people on a whole separate call and hijack the presenter ball! When you get a moment, tell everyone but the speaker to mute OR tell the host/presenter to automatically mute people on enter.

    1. Kyrielle*

      Doesn’t help if the call only has two participant locations and the noise-maker is in the presenter’s location, alas.

  31. Cr8tive*

    I hope the OP keeps in mind that some people are hypoglycemic and absolutely need to snack during meetings! I’m sure they try their best to be quiet. I know in my case if it comes down to me crumpling a bag versus passing out during a meeting, the bag is actually far less disruptive.

    1. Laurent*

      That’s true, but really irrelevant. They can still ask the snacker to move away from the mic or stop eating out of the bag, as necessary. They may need to eat. They do not need to eat right by the mic from a crinkly bag. It’s perfectly ok to ask them to stop the noise. You are not asking them not to eat.

    2. Observer*

      I’m sure they try their best to be quiet.

      Nope. Not at all. There are SOOO many things you can eat that do NOT crunch and that are NOT in crinkly packaging, that it’s not even close.

      I’m sure that you don’t mean it this way, but your comment seems to serve the purpose of guilting the OP for a perfectly and unremarkable request.

      And, by the way, if your choice really is passing out or crinkling, that’s generally poor planning, especially the second time it happens.

  32. Vicki*

    I was on a conference call with our team in India at one point and one of the team members was taking the call outside. There was a bird.

    I kept saying “I hear a bird.” Everyone else just laughed. The bird was driving me nuts and no one would own up to being near the bird.

    But a few months later, in another call, some people said “Do you remember the call with the bird?”

    The other problem is conference calls with someone who is driving With The Window Open on the car.

    1. Kyrielle*

      Airport announcements. I have listened to so many airport announcements. (And the time one person had to present for just a few minutes of a longer call while in an airport, I could understand that life isn’t perfect, but the other calls it was not the presenter.)

  33. Eden*

    Late to this one but yesterday I was at a seminar where one lady stood at the back of the room and crunched on carrots (sounded like drywall screws in a garbage disposal, thanks HIMYM) while our VIP presenter spoke. It was incredibly distracting!

  34. HRChick*

    We had a chronic pen clicker.

    We started with “someone is clicking a pen – can they stop?”. Then it went to. “Bob, please stop clicking your pen.” and devolved over the years…

    “Bob, stop clicking your pen!”
    “Bob, STOP!”
    “Someone take the pen from Bob.”

    Then we had someone assigned to make sure Bob did not have a click pen before conference calls began. They brought a capped pen with them and asked Bob to see his pen and switched it out if he needed to lol. Bob bore it with good humor because it was like he literally couldn’t stop himself. When he didn’t have a click pen, he’d bounce his leg or doodle. We didn’t mind that at all.

    1. Kyrielle*

      I worked for a while with a guy who would flip his pencil or pen in the air and catch it. Noise-wise this wasn’t too distracting, but if you were in the room it could be kind of unnerving, since these weren’t always low flips. More than once (over the course of years) it ended with a pencil or pen point embedded in the acoustic tile of the room if he was feeling really fidgety.

      One day we had a meeting and he didn’t have a writing utensil. There was a pair of scissors on the table. He picked them up, started the pre-flip fidgets, and we took them away from him. Because no.

      Really nice guy. He really needed a meeting fidget that was less hazardous to others, tho.

    2. Benyee*

      I love to remember a previous boss mock sternly warning other senior pen-clicking staff during a meeting “I will take that off you!”. Still makes me chuckle!

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