Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ritual Dance of Meetings

Dr. Suprakash Roy was leaning in his familiar languid way, the perpetual patience tinged with a hint of amusement on his face. The Cafe by the Herengracht was bustling with clientele as I shut the door on the snow-kissed wind and hastened to join him thirty seven after the agreed hour.

“I have heard that the children of this country receive their first diary in school. The buitenlanders complain about the horrors of the Dutch man living by his appointment book.”

I smiled sheepishly and informed him that the Dutchman in question had been held up by some of the good doctor’s own countrymen. Quickly getting rid of the waitress with an order for cappuccino, I placed a weary head on the backrest of the chair.

“Perils of working for an Indian company?” he asked with a smile. “Time stretched across personal boundaries?”

I laughed. “Normally I am spared the elastic hours that bind others,” I observed, hinting at the peculiar privileges I enjoyed as a firangee (a term I have picked up from my recent Indian adventures). However, today the Vice President himself had dropped in for his monthly visit, and the conference room had been a temporary concentration camp for everyone till all the pent up important words had been communicated to eager and not so eager ears.

The doctor’s eyes shone with that particular gleam of interest I recognise so readily nowadays.
“Ah ... but, Simon, tell me something. In an industry that swears by cutting edge technology, why does your Vice President travel around visiting locations? Can one not communicate whatever there is to be communicated through the various forms of networking media?”

I thought about it. For a period of initial frenzy, podcasts did spare us the monthly misery. But as the novelty wore off, the grand footfalls resumed gracing our cubicular existence. I told the psychiatrist as much and added, “I have often wondered about the same. Sometimes these guys shuttle about Prague, Budapest, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and London. A video conference is way cheaper. I guess one of the reasons that they don’t use communication media is that there is seldom too much to communicate.”

The doctor raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

I explained the rigmarole of a stereotypical senior management address in a corporate environment.
“Well, there is hardly anything new said in any meeting. It is more of a repetition of the company being a one big family to live with and grow with theme that keeps recurring – sometimes with a dash of the difficult market and successful expansion thrown in. And there is always a peculiar pitch about the vision and mission which confuses everyone, I guess that includes the man himself. It is a kind of ritual, with him visiting, our assembling and then his delivering the talk. And ultimately, the meeting always gets prolonged because of some members of the team – always the same people – having more or less the same sort of questions every time.”

A smile lit up the psychiatrist’s face as I sipped my coffee.
“It’s very interesting, Simon.”

“I assure you that’s not exactly the right adjective.”

Suprakash laughed.
“The problem is something about the parallel world of networks that always bother me. No networking tool, social or corporate has as yet replicated body language. You see Simon, historically, a great percentage of communication between individuals have taken place through gestures, relative body positions, looks, glances and so on. Even in a video conference, that sort of communication is difficult to achieve.”

I looked at him quizzically and wondered why body language should be important in senior management messages.

“Ah,” the doctor closed his eyes and began speaking. I could tell from experience that he was stepping into the pedagogical mode. “You say there is hardly anything to communicate. So, why these meetings? You hit it on the head when you used the word ‘ritual’. It is a primordial characteristic of society. All animals use body language to establish social pecking order. From the mighty lions to the lobsters. The dominant and the submissive are demarcated by their posture and behaviour. Don’t you see the same thing in the deferential smiles, in the apologetic cough, the tentative rise of the hand in order to ask a question on one hand, and the patronising smile, the busy super important air at the other end? From animal huddles to tribal dances ... this is played out everywhere. In fact, this is a requirement for the ancient human genes to assure themselves both ways – for the leader to feel his acceptance and power, and for the subordinates to ...”

I interrupted even as he spoke.

“For a moment I thought you would classify us as bipeds rather than humans – a la Schopenhauer.”

Dr. Roy smiled apologetically. “Don’t get me wrong. Unlike our mutual friend, I am not overly cynical. I just observe. And here I find fascinating primitive rituals being played out in modern day board rooms. And the other stuff you said about incomprehensible mission statements ... Is it not like the cryptic chant one associates with rituals?”

I laughed, but then the thought hit home.
“Actually, you can say so.”

“I do say so. If you consider the ancient Spartans, they had an annual festival in which the entire populace chanted the Laws – set to music. Through this chant, even difficult decrees were memorised. A shared ritual leading to mutual understanding ...”

I interrupted again.
“But, there is hardly any mutual understanding here, Sup. Mutual confusion is more like it. And I cannot really place this obnoxious orang-utan – to copy shamelessly from my official buddy – at par with the ancient Spartan Strategic Planner. His myopic vision will need a colossal telescope to stretch to such levels of scheming manipulation of our combined minds into remembering...”

“Ah, but, my friend. You forget that I don’t credit him with coming up with the whole thing. This is followed through the dictates of the human genes. Every senior management meeting a ritualistic dance where people keep the rhythm and are pulled up for having ‘attitude problem’ every time they step out of the defined line or step on sensitive toes.”

As the pretty waitress appeared and I rewarded her for the lovely smile with another order of coffee, I closed my eyes and mentally played back meeting after meeting, metronomic monthly ordeals ... pressing the mental mute button to cut off the painful chant.

And I almost saw the steps of this strange dance being performed to the music of time. The big boss flashing a smile, the shimmer of complying laughter at the lamest of opening jokes, the rhythmic nods at the shared thoughts that would sink into oblivion without a trace, there the combined burst of laughter, the same earmarked virtuoso dancers getting into step, raising their hands, mouthing their stereotypical questions – and then the final words, the smiles in unison, the synchronised rise from the seats, the shake of important and privileged hands – I myself taking part in an orchestrated tango, being the local hire who merits a couple of questions from the very important person ... and then the departure followed by harmonious relaxation of postures.

The ritual dance of the tribe of homo cubiculum.

The doctor sat back and enjoyed his latte, but with this new insight, I was hungry for more, and the discussion stretched into the night over approximately half a gallon of coffee.

So watch this space for further analysis of our bizarre commonplace world.

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Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

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Amsterdam, Netherlands