Conference Call Cacophony and Toilets Flushing

I was talking to someone last week about a recent conference call on which I distinctly heard a toilet flush. It turns out I’m not alone:

Three years ago, engineer Randy Thompson was on a weekly conference call about the design of component parts when another participant was suddenly asked for input. The man dutifully chimed in, and so did the sudden flushing sound of an automatic toilet.

“Commercial restrooms use those power-flushing toilets that sound like World War II naval battles, complete with torpedo tubes firing and depth charges exploding,” says Mr. Thompson, who has since retired. “There’s no mistaking the indisputable sound.”

While conference calls have their place — making up for the fact that many business conversations aren’t worth the travel time or cost, for example — they mainly combine the low-grade torment of a meeting with the peril of the speakerphone.

All in all, what you get is little more than meetings with blindfolds — and ones whose participants frequently have cause to wonder: What in the Sam Hill is going on out there? That’s because conference calls often offer a rhapsody of background noises, including the highly amplified sound of crunched Fritos, paper shuffling, barking dogs, soccer games, traffic and SpongeBob SquarePants jingles blaring from somebody’s home TV. Bursts of text messaging can erupt as participants try to figure out who, for example, is snoring into the telephone.

“You have a low level of productivity to save the expense,” grumbles Scott Davis, a semiretired software engineer. “There’s not that much productivity anyway, and when these things get in the way, it just gets worse.” His remedies: a glass of wine to relieve the boredom if he’s not in the office, or ducking out of the call entirely.

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