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Shall We Gather at the White Board?

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.


About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

23 responses »

  1. LOL. You were at my last PTA meeting, and I didn’t even see you. Love the first paragraph. More coffee snerting.

    • There was a year when there were PTA, Church, City and work meetings. I’ve cut it down to one flavor, and half of the time I can’t make those (really).

      Just keep a cloth near your keyboard. 🙂

  2. I’m still laughing at the thought of you trying to slit your wrists with a coffee stirrer…(makes me think of Archie Bunker and the many ways he pantomimed suicide while Edith yammered away)!

    (Using a wooden stick or a flat plastic straw…?) 🙂

    • Red plastic.

      • Yes, the “calculation of speed and pressure necessary to slit one’s wrist” made me laugh out loud and disturb the meeting going on in the conference room next door to my office–the only meetings I like are the one’s we get paid for, and I sold our meeting room two days in a row this week, so, while I hate attending them, I do like to book meetings and set them up$$$$$$$$$

  3. Don’t forget that there are often staples and paperclips available for bodily injury if necessary. You can also fake a coughing fit and excuse yourself.

    My biggest pet peeve is receiving paper copies of the powerpoint-AHHHHH! If you must- email it to me so I can just delete it. I, too, take them home and use them for scrap paper. Unless, of course, in an effort to save paper, they are double sided copies.

    My advice, take up knitting, which is considered acceptable in most of the settings you mentioned. If someone gives you a hard time, I am pretty sure there is some research that indicates that it improves concentration and retention. [Or at least, you can pretend you have read about such. See earlier post.]

    • I had a professor who forced us to buy his workbook “to follow along” class, then proceeded to lecture exclusively from his powerpoints. After figuring out that the pp’s did not match the book *at all*, I figured out that I needed to print the pp’s and never looked at the book again.

      As for knitting…inappropriate during meetings, certainly, but the needles would make an excellent implement for both self-injury and…(I would never would suggest thrusting towards the offenders eye socket) bringing a meeting to a hasty end.

    • The problem with staples (I’ll think about paperclips) is that it would be too dramatic. I don’t want to interrupt anything; I just want to slide quietly under the table and die.

      As you know, I am not gifted in the needle-related arts, but it’s a great incentive to learn. My favorite meetings were the ones where I could legitimately have my computer in front of me, and I could play “Scramble” and check Facebook. I really was listening.

  4. I love the plastic straw thing too. I have to disagree about the knitting. I do realize that you can listen and participate while doing it, but I happen to have seen this in several meetings and the consensus is that most people I have talked to think it’s rude and/or annoying. They might not tell the knitter that, but they do. The clack clack clack of the needles is enough for me to go looking for Ann’s straw too. . . . Ann do you know how many meetings Todd goes to a week? He earns every dollar he makes by having to do that! ugh.

    • I have actually never been at a meeting where anyone was knitting. I guess I’d prefer it to Blackberry-ing, which I do….

      I have a pretty good idea about Todd’s meeting load, and it hurts me just to think about it. I think he is just nicer than either of us, and has a greater capacity to live and let live rather than look for a coffee stirrer? It can’t just be that he’s getting paid; I hate meetings just as much when I’m getting paid.

  5. Be thankful that you’re not a public school teacher where meetings are frequent, painful, and completely unnecessary. They were, honestly, one of the factors that played into my decision to quit classroom teaching.

    • Ah, but my parents were both teachers – my mom in Lansing and my dad at MSU – and they both had endless meetings. My father particularly hated the weekly departmental meeting at which professors held forth, argued violently, and generally wasted time. I think it was the teacher meeting stories that predisposed me to be A Hater…..

  6. Love the defenestration and coffee stirrer hari-kari ideas. I’ll keep them in the hopper for future emergency use. I do share your feelings about such meetings, and especially loathe the read-verbatim-to-audience power points. Hate them. The sign of a small mind and poorly planned presentation.

  7. When I go into the public schools, they LOVE to meet with me. That’s what I tell myself anyway. 🙂

  8. Too bad Craigslist isn’t hiring. They don’t have meetings .

    The long-running tech-industry war between engineers and marketers has been ended at craigslist by the simple expedient of having no marketers. Only programmers, customer service reps, and accounting staff work at craigslist. There is no business development, no human resources, no sales. As a result, there are no meetings. The staff communicates by email and IM. This is a nice environment for employees of a certain temperament. “Not that we’re a Shangri-La or anything,” Buckmaster says, “but no technical people have ever left the company of their own accord.”

  9. wanderingseniors

    The first reference to the coffee stirrer made me chuckle. The second one made me laugh out loud. Not a good thing to do at work, but after reading the paragraph to co-workers they were all laughing, too. (We all hate meetings. I used to go to them until I dozed off one day and snored a wee bit. I was promptly informed that I wouldn’t need to attend meetings anymore. Had I only known all those years that that’s all it took…)

  10. Sister Dearest;

    I have suffered through an inordinate share of meetings (and am always reminded of a quaint and unprintable Navy term suggesting an anatomical impossibility.) My fate as aspiring “pointy-haired boss” (the Scott Adams-reading contingent will understand.)

    Dad’s experiences remind me of the old saw about the arguments in academia . . . they are so fierce precisely because the stakes are so small.

    BlackBerries can help . . . nice if you have a fellow-traveler/fifth columnist in the same meeting you can IM back and forth. Can make for inexplicable laughter (which really irritates the jackass with the needlessly re-iterative powerpoint slides.)

    Committees – ugh. Reminded of Robert Heinlein’s description of a committee as “a beast with 20 bellies and no brain.” Tho’ rules of order DO help retake the floor from the person who wants to kvetch at length about their health problems/uncurbed neighborhood pets/unmet capital budget needs. Sort of like flossing – not pleasant, but the alternative is uglier.

    – PTG

    • You do “take” more meetings than the average bear; probably the only competition you have is Todd, the husband of Michelle (supra).

      You’re probably right about the Rules; they have come in handy at meetings where there were a lot of people, and many of them were angry and irrational. It just seems so petty to be a stickler about it when there are 10 people who aren’t angry, and one of them clearly believes she is up for a role in Margaret Thatcher’s biopic…..


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