• 12.05.12

Design Flaws: On Skype, How Do We Hang Up Gracefully?

Skype is a beautiful app with one big problem. It’s not just the lack of eye contact. It’s the lack of a graceful way to hang up.

Design Flaws: On Skype, How Do We Hang Up Gracefully?

You’ve just video-Skyped a successful business meeting. Or maybe you talked to a loved one from across the globe. There was joviality and earnest discussion. This whole virtual face-to-face meeting thing actually worked out, and you’re closer to another human being, in some small way, because of it.


It’s a tiny technological miracle.

You say your good-byes and convey that you just can’t wait to speak again. And then you go to hang up. And … crap. Where … is … that … hang-up … button … again???!? There’s a split-second moment of confusion and then panic. That’s your real good-bye.

No matter how satisfying your conversation just was, the cherry on top of this interaction is a two-second struggle for each party to break ties. In that momentary quest to rediscover the hang-up button, demeanors quickly shift from competent to clueless, and from warm to task-oriented. Whatever improvised ballet you’d choreographed earlier devolves into an awkward, toe-smashing junior high dance. The last moments of any great Skype conversation are always the worst.

Maybe this sounds petty, but consider the grander implication: A conversation, at its core, is a signal to someone that they’re worth your time (and that you’re worth theirs). By ending any conversation, you’re making a tacit statement: “I have something more important to deal with in my life than talking to you.”

Now, this is an absolutely reasonable sentiment! We all do have other things to do, after all. But to soothe these interpersonal transitions, culture has invented all sorts of verbal balm. We prime someone to ending a conversation rather than merely walking away–”It was great catching up!”–and we wish people well far into the future to signal we’ll care long after our talk is through–”Have a great weekend!” We overcome the depressing human truth that we’d rather not spend all day with one another through constant, vigilant cordiality. Luckily, cues from our social environment help us out. A check arrives at lunch. The bartender shouts last call. The bus finally makes it to your stop.

But Skype (or Google Hangouts, FaceTime, and any other video chat service) offers no such environmental kindnesses–nor does it offer the glorious, blind hang-up of a phone to accompany a well-timed “have a great weekend!” Instead, video chat apps seem to revel in our awkward departures, snickering in intentional ignorance as two puny humans fail to spot an obvious red button. So that critically important transitional moment, when two people amicably break up to go their separate ways, becomes a clumsy series of seconds calling far too much attention to themselves. And our respective motives become clear: We’re both just trying to escape each other.

From the editors: As always, we invite your comments/suggestions on how to fix this vexing problem.


[Image: Telephone via Shutterstock]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.