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Dear Mr. Smith: What's the etiquette on receiving video calls through your computer (via Skype, for example)? If someone calls you with their video on, do you have to turn yours on as well to be polite? What if you're hardly dressed and there's a whiskey bottle on your desk? Is it a bit forward to start video-calling people you're not yet good friends with?

I can't imagine my excitement as an eight-year-old if someone had told me that, for certain in 40 years, I would be seeing a world with visual telephones in it. It was the coolest fantasy of science fiction for me at the time. It still seems unreal.

And yes, it's complicated. Current practice seems to be that video is mostly reserved for social calls; you tend to want to see someone you're already intimate with. In business, that ice takes a while to break, and so teleconferences tend to be voices only. (It's also technically challenging, at least for someone like me, to set up a video teleconference among more than two people.)

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And yes, you are asking a lot of someone, particularly someone you don't know well, if you demand to know what they look like as well as what they sound like when you need to exchange information with them. There's nothing wrong with video-calling a contact, but don't be miffed if they refuse to turn their camera on. You should be exerting no pressure for them to do so; that would be impolite.

The exception for this would be a videophone job interview, where it is reasonable for a prospective employer to wonder how presentable you are.

As these systems become easier to use, however, they are going to become more widespread, and it will become common practice for many kinds of business discussions to take place over a video link, including group discussions. And then we will all have to treat these teleconferences just as we would treat a regular meeting, and shave and dress and clear away the bottles and pipes and hookahs and tell Natasha and Bianca and whoever else is hanging around to get out of the background for a few minutes. We will go to our computers as we would go to work. If your workplace is now everywhere, then everywhere you are must be respectable.

Ask Mr. Smith a question, or view the complete archive, at Russell Smith's online advisory service,

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