Exploring long-term trends in meeting behavior

This paper belongs to of the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium

Wilbert van Vree, University of Amsterdam (Interdisciplinary Studies)

This paper is an example of the idea that in order to understand present-day meeting behavior scientists have to investigate its genesis.

Development of meeting behavior
The modern meeting concept is future-oriented. It refers first and foremost to prearranged gatherings of people talking mutually and making plans and agreements concerning their common future. Meetings are about questions such as: what are we going to do, how are we going to do it and what impact has it on me, on you, on her, on them? By extension, meetings might comprise other communication activities that facilitate answering these questions and following up the answers: sharing information and problem solving (as a sort of solving a jigsaw), teaching each other, team building, and confirming common values. Broadly speaking one could say that thinking is for an individual what meetings are for a group of people.
Anyway, the meeting concept refers to central activities in associations, municipalities, parties, states, interstate bodies, corporations, multinationals and other organizations. People at the summit and in the front line of these organizations usually are the ones who invent and promote new meeting manners, procedures and codes which facilitate group talking and deciding about chains of actions which have become ever larger and more complex in the long run of social life. In order to learn more about the content and spread of meeting do´s and don´ts, we can examine (inter)national series of manuals focused upon meeting manners. These series show a remarkable switch in focus from political and association meetings towards international and workplace meetings in the mid-20th century. This was accompanied by a change in the recommended meeting style from rather formal and parliamentary to more informal and professional.

Parliamentary and professional types of meetings
This switch still has a major impact on the way we usually organize and experience meetings. Until the mid-20th century the dominant meetings to which national populations modeled their behavior were mostly gatherings in which deep-rooted parliamentary rules and customs prevailed.
Since the mid-20th century new types of meetings with different manners and novel communication techniques have been gradually developing on the parliamentary foundations. The social context, in which these new types are emerging, is pre-eminently the workplace. For many reasons organizing and performing work are requiring ever more and more various meetings in which the old, routine manners do not (always) fit well. Primarily developed in the context of democratic assemblies, local councils and associations, many of these older meeting manners conflict with the more diverse and more action-oriented context in which people increasingly hold and attend meetings these days. Slowly, professional meeting types are becoming a second, more multiform and more volatile model for more people.

Ambiguous practices and feelings
In this paper I present the main characteristics of the two dominant types of meetings which serve in various mixtures as models for our actual meeting behavior: parliamentary-oriented meetings on the one hand and professional meetings on the other hand. I argue that contemporary meeting stress and suffering in democratic countries stem in a substantial way from the coexistence of the two inter-conflicting meeting models which triggers ambiguous expectations and feelings.

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