When a cat crashes a video conference call.

When a Cat Crashes a Video Conference Call, Is It Charming or Irritating?

When a Cat Crashes a Video Conference Call, Is It Charming or Irritating?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 27 2016 5:45 AM

When a Cat Crashes a Video Conference Call, Is It Charming or Irritating?

cat web call.
What, me? A distraction? Never!

SVPhilon/Thinkstock

My husband was in a Skype-based job interview a couple of years ago when he noticed that the men he was talking to suddenly looked a little puzzled. Then he saw their eyes move across the screen. They had spotted one of our cats, or rather the tip of her tail, as she walked through the background. When he realized what was going on, Chris picked her up and said, "Callie, not now." His interviewers laughed, and their conversation continued.

He got the job.

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When you’re in the office, holding conference calls on Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts is terrible: There’s always some problem with the technology, and everyone gets a little snippy, blaming the other side when things go haywire. (No, New York office, you froze.)

Doing a video conference call from home is even worse. You have to clear out any mess in the frame, fuss with the lighting, think about thinking about fixing your hair, maybe put on a bra. (OK, this isn’t completely logical, but I always do it anyway.) As my colleague L.V. Anderson put it, “Video conferencing counteracts the benefits of working from home, makes participants distracted and self-conscious, and fails to reproduce the social benefits of meeting in person.”

It’s true. There is just one reason why it’s worth putting up with video meetings while working from home: the opportunity to see pets.

Callie crashes
Callie doing her thing on Zoom.

Callie seems to be somehow drawn to the sound—she also gets very worked up when calls are on speakerphone—and so crashes my video calls on a regular basis. Her ears will show up in the corner of the screen, or she’ll headbutt my face, or she’ll place her front paws on my shoulders. She’s quiet, luckily—though I always keep myself on mute when not speaking, just in case. In my heart, Callie’s antics are utterly delightful. My kind-souled colleagues are good sports about it, sending me enthusiastic messages that say “CAT!” when they spot her on Zoom. I’m not the only Slatester with a feline interloper. My colleagues Jim Newell, Rebecca Onion, and Jacob Brogan all have cats—Leo, Behemoth, and Molly, respectively—who make guest appearances in our regular meetings. Their better-behaved pets typically sleep in frame, instead of winding their way back and forth the way Callie does.

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But not everyone finds a cat cameo so endearing. I was once Skyping with a potential contact whom I didn’t know very well. Callie did her thing, this time walking on the table right in front of the camera. “Oh, sorry, it’s my cat!” I said, grinning. The woman I was talking to nodded and kept talking, not giving me even a little bit of a smile. I was miffed.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that it can be distracting—like when Callie nonchalantly positions her butt in the exact wrong place. And then I don’t quite know what to do: Do I just ignore it and hope everyone else does, too? Do I gently shove her away? Do I let her blackmail me into petting her off-camera so she doesn’t interrupt more? My standard practice after the first intrusion is to smile with a self-deprecating roll of my eyes to acknowledge that it’s ridiculous, and then ignore her. But at times, her presence is undeniably intrusive—like when Slate Editor Julia Turner had to ask me to repeat something because Callie was blocking the mic. (Julia was very nice about it. Still: Sorry, boss!)

When I informally polled some people about whether it’s distracting or charming when a cat crashes a meeting, most expressed enthusiasm. But a candid few admitted it could be a problem. “It’s charming and great unless the cat owner decides to use it as an opportunity to turn the conversation onto his/her cat, in which case it’s unprofessional (and also very un-cat-like),” one former colleague told me. And while I certainly don’t want to turn the conversation onto my cat, this does hit at my “What do I do when it happens?” anxiety. It was a good reminder me not to spend too much time apologizing for the cat.

Another friend mused that this is another example of how the line between work and life is blurring. When your co-workers can literally see into your home, professionalism has to lose some of its gloss. Normally, I’m simply taken by how tastefully decorated my colleagues’ apartments are—but it’s comforting to sometimes see a little disorder, a little lived-in chaos, like a messy living room or a poorly behaved cat.

A colleague who is a mother took this idea a bit further. “I think it’s kind of cute when it happens. But I’m annoyed because I know everyone wouldn’t laugh and say it’s OK if someone’s kid crashed their conference call, which I’m always terrified of when I’m working from home.” When she Zooms in from home for a call, she said, she goes into a room and locks the door so her young son can’t interlope. It was disheartening to hear. I’d like to say that I would laugh and say it’s OK if her kid—who is lovely—popped up.

But I can understand where the anxiety might come from. Of course, a child can actually speak, while my cat is (usually) just a visual interruption. And it’s not socially acceptable to shove a child away—with love—as you can do with a cat.

But maybe it’s that we find a glimpse of a home life endearing, but we don’t want to see too much. A friendly cat and a ratty couch are fine. A child and an unmade bed in the background, with a CPAP machine on the nightstand? Unfair as it is, that might be too far. At least for now.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, New America, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies.