At the best of times, conference calls can be unwieldy, from the guy who fails to mute the flushing toilet, to the latecomers who join midway through and ask questions that have already been answered. And then there are the people who get dropped off — and the inevitable beeping sound of rejoining.

But perhaps the trickiest part of any conference call has become how to get a word in edgeways. There’s no body language to cue up your eager-to-speak moment, none of the visuals of face-to-face communication. With so many voices struggling to be heard — interrupting is the norm. So how can you interject without being rude?

Having your say

Sylvain Barrette, a French Canadian who works in asset management in Frankfurt, adapts his style by culture and says there’s no way around interrupting on calls. “You just have to do it.”

Even so, over the years he’s developed his own techniques. For instance, Barrette finds it easier to interrupt French people, compared to Germans, because French have “a certain level of chaos on the call anyway”, he says.

At the end of the day, what matters is to be polite

“With French people, everyone is talking at the same time. It’s almost normal for us to interrupt each other. As for Germans, you have to wait for the verb at the end of the sentence. It’s very impolite to interrupt a German, especially in German,” Barrette said. “At the end of the day, what matters is to be polite.”

First, ensure you have a good reason for interrupting, says Richie Frieman, who blogs as the Modern Manners Guy and is author of REPLY ALL... And Other Ways to Tank Your Career. Reasons may include pushing people to make decisions, summing up next steps, or moving certain discussion topics to future calls, he says. Next, test the waters to find the right way to interrupt on calls with people from different cultures and different hierarchy levels by listening first to the way people from that culture do it. Or look for advice from people with that particular cultural expertise.

Don’t be a shamer

Once you interrupt a conversation, you have the stage, Frieman says, so don’t be anti-climactic.

“You better make sure that you’re coming with something substantial. Not that it’s going to be, ‘Yeah, I agree with Dave.’” If the interruption is constructive, it will go over better, Frieman says.

Being constructive is not so easy, though, if you’re rolling your eyes on the other end of the line as someone thinks out loud, repeats a point, or lets everyone else know about his or her position of power or superior intelligence.

“I hate it when somebody says, ‘Let’s wrap it up’... This diminishes the person’s standing,” Frieman said. If you imply that a contribution was not valuable, you often end up looking bad.

To avoid this, he interrupts gently, segueing to thank the speaker for sharing, ignoring it when little progress was made. Then Frieman quickly turns the conversation so that the rambler has no chance to resume with the foregone point. He will say, “That’s a really good point, and one thing we could think about for next time, since we’re running out of time, is XYZ.”

Be clear and concise

Katharina Barta, an Innovation Design Expert for the Creator Space program at BASF in Ludwigshafen, led part of a global project last year that involved planning six major tour stops around the world. She says she spent a large percentage of her time during the project in global conference calls, some starting as early as 6:00 or as late as 20:00.

Sometimes you really need to jump in. That’s the only way to structure the call back to the agenda

Interrupting others was an integral part of leading calls, she says, and it was made easier because the team had taken time up front to define clear roles and responsibilities. When calls were of an exploratory nature at the beginning of the project, Barta took a more open-ended communication approach. But as project deadlines loomed, she was more willing to jump in.

Often, she says she interrupted when she felt she had heard enough arguments for or against a certain point that needed to be decided. It was time to override the chatter and call the matter to vote. “Sometimes you really need to jump in. That’s the only way to structure the call back to the agenda,” Barta said.

On calls, you have to be a bit pushier than in in-person meetings

On the telephone, though, compared to in-person, it was more difficult for Barta to interrupt, since she couldn’t raise her hand or lean forward, she said. “The technical delay on the phone line made it harder. In a large group, there’s only one voice talking and the others are muted, and then I can’t say hmmm to transition. You usually have to wait for the real break to speak. On calls, you have to be a bit pushier than in in-person meetings.”

Try a disclaimer

Sometimes the best time to be assertive is during those moments when everyone is talking at once anyway and laughing about it, or when there has been silence, says Frieman. “You can’t be faulted for trying to say something when there’s silence.”

And remember that not every interruption has to be in the same style. You may say “Sorry, but” a lot, which can be tiring or make you seem unsure of yourself, so look for other phrases. Some people clear their throat, say yeah, yeah, yeah, or butt in with their own guttural tone. 

If you’re feeling that people may have had enough of your interruptions, you can always try to soften the blow with a disclaimer at the beginning of the call, warning that you intend to interrupt in a friendly way if people go off-track or long.

International conference call etiquette

• Different nationalities have different call cultures. Listen and observe before you dive in.

• If calls are large and people don’t know voices, always say your name when you speak up, “This is Mary. I’d like to add that…”

• Respect other people’s time.

• Don’t promote yourself or your services on large group calls, unless you are specifically asked to do so.

Or, do it as Barta does: “I give a disclaimer in the situation. If I feel a comment is something we can discuss later, then I interrupt him and say, ‘We have that milestone coming up… can we discuss next time?’ Disclaimers and rules for calls help give people a good feeling about which behaviour is more welcome and what is less ideal for that situation.”

She adds: “With a disclaimer, they feel more secure about the conversation.”

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