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Mind your meeting manners

By Sue Fox & Ranjini Manian, The Hindu Business Line, India – 06/26/2006 – 12:00am

Understanding the behaviour you encounter during meetings in the office and following some basic guidelines can help you have more productive meetings.

Americans go to more meetings than anybody else in the world. At their best, these assemblies bring people together to share information, experiences and allow people to learn from one another. At their worst, they waste time and leave everyone irritated.

Indians usually approach meetings from a different point of view altogether. Information is disseminated more than shared, the flow being top-down or down-top. There are some in-built Indianisms to take note of in meeting manners.

More listening than talking: You will probably find that participation is much more subdued compared to the Western style. In India, people will generally listen to wait for instructions rather than participate. This comes from the education system where you get marks for correct answers and not for participating.

Fear of being considered a show-off: Asking questions is considered showing off — again a fallout of the education system and social conditioning — whereas in the West one would listen and ask questions. Everyone prepares to speak on his/her own topic and to field questions from others.

Silence: Silence during a meeting rarely means consent. Indians may refrain from contradicting the senior colleague out of respect, but that does not mean they agree or that the speaker has convinced them.

Speech constraints: Contributing is difficult for some Indians due to lack of English fluency too. One needs a lot more than average fluency to put points across subtly, defend it and so on. Many prefer not to speak up even if they don’t understand something. Instead, they would much rather ask other colleagues later .

You can become quite a hand at meetings if you make allowances for these quirks and come up with solutions for them. Whether conducting or participating in a meeting, here are some basic tips to help you through them.

International best practices

The etiquette for business meetings begins before the time together. It starts in the actual decision to hold a meeting . The need for the meeting has to be properly communicated. Don’t call the thing unless you have a clear purpose in the first place.

Consider the amount of time you are asking from the meeting participants. Could the information being dealt with in a meeting be circulated and answered through a memo or e-mail instead?

Now for your manners. Think about the scheduling. If it’s going to run long, don’t call it for late afternoon (unless you’re prepared to adjourn mid-stream and pick it up the next day). Try to avoid calling meetings the day before a long weekend, or participants will be watching the clock rather than paying attention to the discussion.

If you are the person who called the meeting, consider these pointers:

Invite those people to the meeting who are directly responsible for the business to be discussed.

Notify participants one week in advance to remind them of the time, place and date.

Distribute the agenda well in advance and have extra copies on hand for the meeting itself.

Start the meeting on time.

Introduce participants who do not know one another.

If the meeting runs for a long time, allow for a break so participants can take a stretch, use the restroom, check messages or make phone calls.

If you are a participant rather than the organiser, the rules stand. Arrive on time! There’s no question we live in a hectic and quick paced world. However, punctuality is critical not only for your career, but for your personal relationships as well. Time is our most precious commodity and it is extremely rude to waste someone else’s time by making them wait for you.

Do your homework. Read any material that has been sent in advance and brush up on the agenda. Ask questions if you don’t understand and make sure your comments are relevant — don’t use the meeting to toot your own horn.

If you’re making a presentation, understand the purpose first and don’t go over your allotted time. The bottomline, as in all things: You shouldn’t waste your time or anyone else’s.

(Ranjini Manian is Founder-Director of Global Adjustments, the Chennai-headquartered cross-cultural training and services company and Sue Fox is a US-based international partner and is also Founder-President of Etiquette Survival, California)

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