On Meetings: A Note On Dreaded Corporate Etiquette

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When we look back on our working lives and wonder where the time has gone, the answer is, of course, meetings. The meeting is to modern office work what the hunt was to our primeval ancestors. Beneath the surface, civility is where money is made and survival is ensured — while an intriguing variety of biscuits sits untouched and brightly lit in the center of the wood-effect table.

Though there is always much to talk about and an agenda to get through, the protocol of meetings dictates that they cannot begin too abruptly. There must be at least seven (but never more) minutes of chat, a piece of dialogue entirely unrelated to the real reason why one has left one's desk — and which meanders painfully around insincere considerations of the weather, the children and a recent sporting event. It is embarrassment that causes the chat.

In a democratic egalitarian society, the person who has called the meeting hesitates before too clearly revealing its purpose to the subordinate or supplicant party seated across the biscuits. Just as manners were invented to disguise the brutishness of our appetites, so, too, the chat conceals the shame at the ruthless drives that pulsate beneath the politeness of office civilization. We may be itching to scold, order, bark, hire or fire, but, as if we essentially had nothing on our minds, we remark on the unusual chilliness of the season.

Yet it is a recklessly naive employee who inadvertently continues the chat for even a fraction of a minute longer than the time subtly allotted to it by the most powerful person in the room. We all know the naive, touching Don Quixotes who sally forth on an over-long anecdote just after the chairperson has mumbled the customary "Right, then."

What blatherers we humans are. If only we could communicate with the abbreviated accuracy of algebraic equations, and yet it is cheering that big decisions about the future of pipelines and data storage centers can be reached within a slurry of "To be honests" and "It could be argued thats".

There is often a moment in the meeting when something external happens which brings an element of self-consciousness to proceedings: an ambulance, hammering from upstairs, a fat fly obsessively buzzing around one participant. One can't ignore the issue — though one has to be relatively senior or cocky to draw attention to it: "This fly is clearly interested in tax deferment ..."

What immediate comedy and horror would result if a machine were plugged into our brains, beaming up on a PowerPoint screen all the thoughts we were having as we navigated the agenda; it would show our sexual fantasies, longings and despair while a little more sand trickled from the upper chamber of life's hourglass until we finally reached point 9.8 on the agenda.

Alain de Botton is the author of the book How Proust Can Change Your Life. He lives in London.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Philosopher Alain de Botton thinks a lot about how people work. He's the author of a book called "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work." If you've ever felt like you were held hostage in a long meeting at the office, then he has these thoughts for you.

Mr. ALAIN DE BOTTON (Author, "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work"): When we look back on our working lives and wonder where the time has really gone, the answer is, of course, in meetings. The meeting is to modern office work as the hunt was to our primeval ancestors. Beneath the surface civility is where money is made and survival ensured while an intriguing variety of cookies sits untouched and brightly lit in the center of the wood-effect table.

Though there's always very much to talk about and an agenda to get through, the protocol of meetings dictates that they cannot begin too abruptly. There must be at least seven, but never more, minutes of chat, a piece of dialogue entirely unrelated to the real reason why one's left one's desk and which meanders painfully around insincere considerations of the weather, the children and a recent sporting event. It's embarrassment that causes the chat.

In a democratic, egalitarian society, the person who has called the meeting hesitates before too clearly revealing its purpose to the subordinate or supplicant party seated across the cookies.

Just as manners were invented to disguise the brutishness of our appetites, so, too, the chat conceals the shame at the ruthless drives that pulsate beneath the politeness of office civilization. We may be itching to scold, order, bark, hire or fire, but, as if we had essentially nothing on our minds, remark on the unusual chilliness of the season.

Yet it's a recklessly naive employee who inadvertently continues the chat for even a fraction of a minute longer than the time subtly allotted to it by the most powerful person in the room. We all know those naive, touching Don Quixotes who sally forth on an overlong anecdote just as the chairperson has mumbled the customary: Right, then.

What blatherers we humans are. If only we could communicate with the abbreviated accuracy of algebraic equations, and yet it's cheering that big decisions about the future of pipelines and data storage centers can be reached within a slurry of, to be honest, and it could be argued that.

There is often a moment in the meeting when something external happens, which brings an element of self-consciousness to proceedings: an ambulance, hammering from upstairs, a fat fly obsessively buzzing around one participant. One can't ignore the issue, though one has to be relatively senior or just cocky to draw attention to it: This fly is clearly interested in tax deferment, someone might venture.

What immediate comedy and horror would result if a machine were to be plugged into our brains and beamed up on a PowerPoint screen all the thoughts we were having as we navigated our way down the agenda. A screen that would show our sexual fantasies, our longings and our despair while a little more sand trickled down from the upper chamber of life's hourglass until we finally reached .9.8 on the agenda.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: That's philosopher Alain de Botton, the author of "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.