Sujith Jay Nair Thinking Aloud

Mute Buttons Are The Latest Discourse Markers

Every one, and their mom, is on a video call at least once a day now. There is a tiny second-order effect brewing in these video calls. It’s do with the mute buttons.

Let me describe a common-place scenario in conference calls. In a call with a fair number1 of participants, we tend to keep our microphones muted. It’s common etiquette, and the reason to do so is pretty plain. You do not want to burden the speaker & other participants with your background noise; and this helps to keep the conversations as distraction-free as possible. So, what happens when you want to speak? You unmute the microphone. Simple! And once you have spoken, you “concede the conversation” by muting yourself back.

In short, mute buttons are functioning as discourse markers, and are our latest language innovation. This also reminds me a bit of Hyrum’s Law:

… all observable behaviors of your system will be depended on by somebody.


  1. IMO, more than 3 people in a call necessitates the use of the mute button.