Talking, big and small


NOT EVERYTHING discussed in a meeting is part of the agenda or makes it to the minutes to be approved subsequently. The first item in the agenda is usually the approval of the minutes of the previous meeting.

Talking entails both small and big matters.

Just before the formal meeting, participants engage in small talk. This is idle chatter touching on trivial topics like: political observations on missing leaders; victims of the pandemic; recent departures from this earth; aches and pains being suffered (I can recommend a good therapist); news on other people (preferably involving those not present or related to those who are); and the effects of the Ukrainian war on wheat products.

The formal meeting dispenses with such trivial pursuits and follow an agenda where charts are presented, and comments are of an inquisitorial nature — why did we sell the asset at a discount to book value?

The introduction of a contentious topic even if not part of the agenda, say the impact of the depreciation of the peso on imported raw materials, even before the start of the formal meeting, can derail the gossipy part of small talk. Even economics provides subjects for idle chatter.

Ribald jokes used to be acceptable in small talk before the entry of political correctness. Now, such forays into even sexual innuendoes are seen, if not in bad taste, then possibly bordering on sexual harassment, especially when shared in mixed company. (We want to provide a safe space.)

Small talk often precedes big talk, a prelude to the matters at hand. The former is used as a diversion, while awaiting the arrival of the Most Important Person (MIP) without whose presence the meeting might as well be cancelled. However, too abrupt a halt in the ebb and flow of prattle as soon as the MIP finally walks in with his coterie can be misconstrued as being caught mid-sentence in some back-stabbing comment about him.

Sudden quiet upon a participant’s entry can lead to a fraught situation, especially for the one who stops talking abruptly. Such a drop in the noise level calls attention to the tardiness of the MIP, who is anyway never on time. When the MIP walks in, the flow of conversation as well as the laughter must continue for a bit until the MIP takes his seat. (Sir, what are your thoughts on our team’s chances for a championship?)

After a decent interval, the MIP calls the meeting to order, as if there were other reasons and not his tardiness that delayed the proceedings. A too abrupt switch of gears from small talk to big talk only emphasizes that everybody was in fact waiting for him, hinting at unexpressed exasperation. Finally, we can start.

The start of the formal agenda and the end of aimless conversation are clearly demarcated, with a loud clearing of the throat of the MIP. In a virtual meeting, there is even an announcement that the proceedings are now being recorded. No matter how riotous a still unfinished joke is, the punch line needs to be given up. Chairs are pulled closer to the table, and all eyes move towards the white screen for the inevitable Power Point presentation. (Can you see my screen?)

To carry on with small talk after the meeting has started runs the risk of the chatterer being clueless. A louder voice runs over the babbling lightweight — Ms. Secretary, do we have a quorum?

Independent directors or foreign consultants can find the extended small talk unnerving. They may need to catch a plane for Beijing and can just make it to the airport if the jokes were pared down.

The rush to get to the main course and skip the appetizer of small talk, especially when it has gone on too long, leads to social annoyance. (I’m still chewing my corned beef sandwich.) Rushing too obviously to the item on the engagement of a consultant is sure to be seen as too assertive — why don’t you just go ahead and catch your plane?

Small talk sets a tone of familiarity and good vibes. Those too eager to start the formal meeting are seen to be too time-bound especially when they need to leave prematurely to attend another scheduled meeting. They then become the subjects of small talk which naturally resumes… right after the meeting.

Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda