Although I am not a fundamentally querulous person, there are things that I really, really hate. Many of them , including clowns and bridal showers with games, are easily avoided if one eschews the circus and develops the habit of sending of a lovely gift after declining the shower invitation based on a fictitious but irreproachable schedule conflict. (Mrs. Nichols regrets that she is unable to attend the Tupperware shower for Brittani because she will be presiding over the Summit to Help Widows and Orphans). Other things are not as easily bypassed, and at the bottom of life’s barrel, under clowns, bridal showers, black licorice and romance novels lies The Meeting.
I have had good meetings. They are generally characterized by involving no more than three or four busy people, no formal rules of order, no controversy, and a common goal. The capacity to identify what needs to be done, divvy up the doing of it and agree to keep in touch via e-mail is a beautiful thing, and I am grateful every time I see it. I have had this blissful experience often in the context of school-related activities, less often as a part of volunteering in the community, and almost never at an actual job. That is why I work at home, by myself.
I like people, I really do, but I’d like to be honest about whether we are gathering for the purpose of receiving information, making a decision, planning an event or providing a forum for the airing of grievances and the pontificating of the under-heard. There is a kind of meeting attendee who sees a meeting as an opportunity to explore every nook and cranny of misery he or she has experienced since the last one, to throw everything on the conference table, and to gum up the following half hour of the meeting while people attempt to palliate, mitigate, and obligate. My immediate inclination is to defenestrate. It is never necessary to involve a committee in one’s own personal issues with the teacher who doesn’t like your child, the co-worker who poaches your customers, or your consternation because the leaves were collected later than the date on the City’s calendar. If your personal gripe is germane to a more universal discussion of, say, customer-poaching, it is sufficient to say something like “I’ve had that experience, and it was difficult.” Any farther and you are in territory best covered in a private meeting with your boss, your school principal or someone in the Department of Public Works.
I am also repelled by the meeting that is actually a lengthy speech followed by a Q & A session invariably reduced to 3 minutes because the “presentation” ran long. I have attended many of these windbaggeries in work and community settings, and have, at various times, texted under the conference table, IM’ed with my husband from my laptop, and calculated the amount of speed and pressure necessary to slash my wrists using a coffee stirrer. Frequently there is a “handout,” which involves information readily available online; I carry these home, cut them up and staple them together to make notepads. The nadir is the speech with Powerpoint accompaniment, in which the speaker intones that “we can attain this goal using a three-point approach” while showing us the words “three-point approach” above three arrows joined at the base and radiating therefrom. You can actually make a pretty good incision if you hold the stirrer very close to the point where it connects with your wrist.
While it occurs less frequently, I am persistently plagued by the “Concensus Building” activity in which various alternatives are listed on a series of posters, and victims are given colored sticky dots which they are instructed to allocate among their preferred choices. It has been my experience that these exercises exist solely for the purpose of allowing the Powers that Be to do exactly what they were going to do anyway, after having thrown the posters in the room where they keep broken AV equipment and the box of extension cords.
I cannot leave the topic of Fear and Loathing in the Conference Room without a word about Roberts’ Rules of Order. I am certain that if one is actually a member of Parliament, it is critically important to follow an established set of rules governing who speaks when, and how a motion is made. It is also probably important that minutes be accurately taken, and that motions and votes should be made and recorded as befits matters that will affect the laws of a country. None of this applies in a church or PTA meeting, and yet I have sat and waited while people debated the propriety of a “friendly amendment,” or the best framing of a motion. I am not arguing that these things are unimportant, merely making it abundantly clear that I do not personally give a rat’s ass whether an amendment is friendly or not, and I tend to be of the opinion that most things can be revisited and tweaked if they prove to be less than perfect. I am similarly disaffected regarding the painstaking re-drafting of charters, bylaws, articles of incorporation, or any other long document intended to cover every eventuality that might occur in this, or any other dimension. That is why I don’t really practice law.
If you like meetings, plan meetings, and/or find meetings to be a productive investment of your time, my hat is off to you. It really is. I am particularly thrilled if you participate in meetings with a real purpose and a collective passion for cutting to the chase. I am maybe too flaky, too critical, too…conscious of my life draining away if I waste an hour of it reading a Powerpoint while its contents are read to me by a guy in a suit.