When Socially-Awkward People Get Invited to Company Meetings

At my work, there are regular meetings that are large enough that you can whisper to your neighbor “look at this picture of cookies” without being heard, but small enough so that there is no catering (i.e. no free cookies).

The first couple of meetings I attended were protected by a n00b buffer; if I did or said anything stupid, no-one would really care and just chalk it down to the whimsical individuality of non-corporate-stampeded naivete. Recently was the third of such meetings, and now I had to act like a confident, well-adjusted grown-up.

Choosing a seat

In short – in a corner, in the dark, or near a door. Preferably all three.

Like a panicked moron, I ended up choosing a seat at one end of a U-shaped conference table, thinking I’d be away from the action. Turns out it was the furthest seat from either of the doors, and right next to the wall that had the projections of the video conference participants and the meeting’s presentation (at which everyone was looking).

Choosing a drink

My drink of choice of late is hazelnut black tea mixed with hot chocolate (or, failing that, Swiss Miss). I’m not a hot drink hipster, I just ordered an iced version of chocolate black tea from a bakery in Chinatown once and have been hooked on the concoction ever since (it really does need to be a strong black tea). Everyone else chose an easy-to-make coffee and cold creamer. So when I’m sitting down with a near-boiling cup of fluid in front of me, it really shouldn’t surprise me if I burn several layers off my tongue, but the trick is not to cry out in pain, much like when you’re getting a flu jab and don’t want to betray your cool exterior. Smile through the pain and just swallow it down.

Paying Attention

The trick is not to just pay attention, but make it look like you’re really, really paying attention. It doesn’t matter if you’re just a temp who was recently hired and have never, ever heard of all of last year’s past initiatives and paradigms and mission-critical optimizations, just smile and nod and act like, if you had ever had any knowledge of these things, that you would give a shit about any of them.

And it’s not enough to just nod and smile and try to co-ordinate your haughty fake business laugh with other people’s real fake haughty business laughs. You have to pick moments to squint your eyes in faux concentration as if one particular powerpoint slide or discussion topic means something to you. Just don’t choose the “does anyone have any questions?” moment as your “eureka” moment, or you’ll get flashbacks to being called on in class (although, of course, that was never an issue for me).

Managing Introductions

Inevitably, if there’s an outside speaker, you will be expected to remember which business unit/group/division you support, and be able to summarize exactly what you do in a way that doesn’t make you look like a third tit. We actually had a discussion at the end of the last meeting about our division’s sudden name change…without any of us having been told, and the quandary that resulted in not knowing what to call ourselves (again, apparently).

A best practice, if you’re running this kind of meeting, is to recommend introductions only if someone has a question. And if you choose the “introduce the person to your left” bullshit, I hope your business goes bankrupt, because that is as comfortable and natural as a bra made out of reconstituted walrus pubic hair.

Take Notes

Everyone will bring a pen and pad to a meeting, and almost everyone will take notes. If you can’t think of anything of value to note down (because, in turn, you are a temp and of no value), for God’s sake do not doodle. People will be able to tell, even if they are sat way across the room. Write down a grocery shopping list; take a word and try to make into another word by changing just one letter at a time; or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, write down anything that you might be quizzed on by your Executive Senior Vice Managing Director Partner President in a follow-up meeting.

Managing Handouts

If you’re lucky, you might get a big wad of presentation to leaf through, or some relevant printouts. This way, you can stare mindlessly at something other than the floor or that person’s shoes and feel like you’re genuinely engaged in this meeting. If you had the foresight to get a seat at a far end, then great, but if you’re near the speaker, or somewhere in the middle of the row/line of seats, you will have to take a handout and pass them on, so make sure your fingers are moist enough to separate the papers (in England, we learn how to separate flimsy materials by bagging our own groceries at the supermarket and fighting those maddening plastic bags).

If your finger is not moist enough, you may have to lick the tip to provide traction across the paper. Do so quickly and swiftly. You don’t want to get the reputation of being the Office Paper Drooler. Quite frankly, if it’s a one-pager, then it shouldn’t even be a handout. Multiple-pagers involve paper clips and staples, which will provide enough inter-stack air space to allow free-flowing thumbing-throughing to enable efficient separation and distribution.

Another issue relating to seat location is the shape of the table and position of the speaker. If you’re at, say, one of the far ends of U-shaped table and the presenter passes out two different portfolios, you are going to have to make that decision about what to do when the person opposite the room, at the other end of the other tip of the U, is patiently waiting. Don’t worry, you’re both in the same boat, because you each have to exchange your handouts. Here are some options for dealing with this situation:

  • Walk over to the other person and get in the way of the entire presentation and/or video conference participants’ projections
  • Engage in a staring match until one of you does get up
  • Loudly read out the contents to your staring partner so no-one has to get up
  • Fashion a paper plane from your handout and attempt a stealth flight when no-one’s looking.
  • Look guilty and awkward until the speaker breaks the ice and encourages the getting up and moving about and disruption caused by this non-constructive method of handout distribution.

Any Questions?

Don’t fall for this. You will most likely:

  • Have your question answered by a question (“what do you mean?”; “like the X we Xed last year?”) that you can’t answer
  • Repeat yourself because you were talking too quietly, and the panic will make you forget
  • Mispronounce something embarrassingly wrongly (“I cunt see why we didn’t use our last initiative”; “That’s testicularly important to our girth as a company”)
  • Ask a question that was already covered in the presentation when you weren’t paying attention.

Just nod your head, smile and wait until the next meeting. This usually only works for larger conferences (20+ people), where you can be a meaningless face in a sea of confident, tenured, important people who are more valuable to the company than you are (until you invent that death ray). In smaller meetings, just bluff your way through it and pray for the death ray to get you instead. For one-to-one meetings, just keep eating cookies because it’s just too impolite to talk with your mouth full. Ah, cookies. Don’t they always just save the day?

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