«University of Colorado, Boulder CU Scholar Communication Graduate Theses & Dissertations Communication Spring 5-28-2014 Form, Function, and Figure: ...»
by Mary and me in more recent meetings that do have these documents. Mary focused on trying to make meetings more efficient, while I focused on trying to make meetings more productive and generative of products. About halfway through our conversation, we explicate our opposing views of meetings, which is the beginning of the following excerpt. To mimic the look of the instant messenger, separate messages are produced on separate lines, which are choices made by the “speaker” while typing. Spelling and grammar is kept as it was typed.
Excerpt 12 (February 2013, Facebook messenger meeting, Lines 52-79, Mary and Katie)
Two opposing views of meetings are produced in this exchange between Mary and Katie.
Mary puts forth the normative ideal that “a normal meeting is supposed to be more informational” in line 6. This kind of meeting includes “seeing where everyone is at”, which indexes the activity of reporting on completed tasks. As I wrote about in oratorical genres and styles, meetings are also said to “force conversation”, which correlates with the earlier characterization of meetings as a “burden”. However, Mary also says that meetings “make things more personal”. Therefore, it seems that while there is some burdensome aspect to meetings, there is a reward as well.
I put forth a different normative ideal in this exchange. I state in line 7 that “a normal meeting is supposed to be doing something or making something”. I provide an example in lines 8-12 of writing a grant with a group of people, where at least part of the work is completed together during a meeting. This view of meetings maps on to a similar view of communication generally. In this exchange, I was thinking of Deetz’s (1994) constitutive view of communication. Like his constitutive view, this view of meetings does not exclude the informational view of meetings, as I point out in line 24, but rather incorporates it as only part of the whole. This view privileges what meetings can accomplish in terms of decisions, discussion, and creating products.
September 2013 Board of Directors Meeting The February 2013 meeting between Mary and I became a point of reference, or text, for us, and we brought this text to the board at the first board meeting that happened afterward. The September 2013 board meeting was called to get the board members together to review the organization’s activities since the annual board meeting in December 2012. Mary also added
experienced volunteers who might not be technologically inclined. The board members in attendance included Amanda, Lisa, Lise, Mary, Sean, and me. Dan and Doug were both absent.
Amanda and I were present virtually on video-conferencing software. A few minutes before the excerpt, Mary mentioned that with my help she wanted to make meetings more effective and fun.
Lisa interjected with a suggestion to have “fiestas” instead. After that, Mary reported on a few more topics, and then started the full discussion on meetings, which is the beginning of this
Excerpt 13 (September 2013, Board of directors meeting, 13:58, Mary, Lisa, Lise, Sean, and Katie)
Meetings here are invoked as a more positive way of speaking. Mary associates meetings with “showing that we’re a team” in lines 3-4 of her long opening turn. In this characterization
meetings, rather than scattered parts. Lise says in line 20-21 that she thinks meetings “are more productive” and she is also “more productive” in meetings. Online communication, via Wiggio, is characterized as less productive because people are “meeting at different times” and they “don’t know what [they’re] speaking about”. In line 57 Lisa associates meetings with “purpose”.
And finally in line 68, Mary says that meetings can be used to “put us back on track” after feeling like there is “disorganization”. Meetings in this view are a productive communicative practice that has purpose, provides people with a sense of being a team, and can organize people when there is a sense of disorganization. This positive characterization of meetings, however, seems to be associated with a possible move away from the term “meeting”. In line 14 Mary returns to the re-casting of meetings as “fiestas” instead. The term fiesta is associated with “eating tacos”, as Lisa points out in line 52, and Mary puts eating tacos on the agenda for the fiesta in line 54. Fiestas seem to be associated with fun, whereas meetings still bring up some negative impressions.3 The term “meeting” is still associated with a burdensome or negative aspect in this excerpt. Mary states that she does not want to “have meetings for the sake of having a meeting” in lines 6-7. This opinion is taken up and repeated by Sean in line 49. He articulates this as the negative result of holding regularly scheduled meetings. Lisa and Lise also agree that meetings should not be scheduled, possibly for the same reason. The exact negative associations that this brings up are not explicated in this exchange, but their dread with meetings seems to be akin to a dread with a more bureaucratic way of holding meetings. That bureaucratic way of holding meetings might seem to be purposeless, more focused on information and tasks, and less focused
of the negative aspects of meetings, then perhaps the members of SPC are using Wiggio as a way to deal with bureaucratic tasks in a less burdensome manner.
The Evolution of Norms The characterizations of meetings produced in these three meetings may at face value seem to be different, but there are traces of similarity throughout these characterizations. By tracing three themes through these meetings, I can show how the norms of interpretation changed over time. This kind of discussion might be a way of tracing change over time in communicative practices, as Sigman (1998) called for in ethnographic work. In the remainder of this section, I
discuss three themes of metacommunicative talk about meetings as they evolve over time:
“burden”, “purpose”, and “showing that we’re a team”.
The first theme is “burden”. This theme begins in the November 2012 meeting, where Mary characterizes meetings as a burden on people, perhaps especially when they are about menial tasks. Meetings have other tasks associated with them, such as writing meeting minutes to record what happened in the meeting, and making sure that there is a quorum present to hold a meeting in the first place. Thus, this meeting could be characterized as a burden because it includes a short amount of updates and still requires some of the more bureaucratic actions of meetings, which might be why it was an “informal meeting”. In the February 2013 meeting, Mary continues to speak about burdensome aspects of meetings by saying that meetings “force some conversation”. That phrase shows that meetings have a sense of unnatural conversation associated with them, which might be seen as burdensome to Mary. The emphasis in this meeting is less on the meeting itself as a burden; instead the meeting is the cause of a burden. In the most recent board meeting, “meeting for the sake of meetings” is the negative and
meetings become a regularly scheduled event, rather than a spontaneous occurrence. Meetings themselves are no longer seen as burdensome, nor are they necessarily the cause of a burden.
Now meetings can be burdensome if they become a regularly scheduled practice.
The second theme in the metacommunicative talk about meetings is “purpose”. This label was not used until the September 2013 meeting, but the theme can be seen in the other two meetings as well. In the November 2012 meeting, meetings were connected with large and complex tasks. These tasks serve as the purpose of holding a meeting, because they supposedly have enough information involved with them in order to justify holding a meeting. My characterization of meetings in the February 2013 meeting broadens the “purpose” of meetings to include more than just information. I then characterized meetings as “doing something or making something”. The purpose of meetings evolved into working together, perhaps on a task that requires more than one person’s attention. “Purpose” is now more closely tied with the oratorical genre of discussion-based meetings, rather than just a lot of information to share.
Finally, in the September 2013 meeting, purpose evolves as a central theme for good or productive meetings. After discussing how scheduling meetings can be just “for the sake of meetings”, the alternative view that meetings could be used to put people “back on track” when there is “disorganization” seems to be tied to the purpose of meetings. Meetings create organization where there was previously disorganization. Now the purpose of meetings is to organize, perhaps in addition to being a site of discussion and needing to discuss large and complex tasks.
The final theme that I want to trace over these meetings is “showing that we’re a team”.
This theme is closely tied to the relational aspect of meetings. In the November 2012 meeting,
“burden” them with a meeting. In that meeting, information was given credence over any mention of being a team or a whole together. The February 2013 meeting had a different characterization. Mary conceded that meetings “make things more personal”. This differs from the purely informational channel for communication, Wiggio, which does not “make things more personal”. Mary attributes some relational aspect to meetings, rather than a purely task orientation (Keyton, 1999), but she has not yet fully developed what this relational aspect is or what it means for the organization. She accomplishes this by September 2013 in the board meeting. Meetings are now meant to “show that we’re a team”. Without meetings, one could assume that a certain feeling of togetherness is lost. Mary says that there is something different about face-to-face interaction, which can only happen in meetings and not on the text-based platform Wiggio. The shift toward a more relational characterization of meetings mirrors a shift away from characterizing meetings as burdens. Perhaps this signifies a shift in Mary’s, and perhaps other SPC members’, opinions about the usefulness or purpose of meetings.
Throughout this chapter, I have provided a view of a few different aspects of the form and function of meetings in SPC. First, meeting beginnings and endings are marked by a definite frame. This frame includes the time that the meeting started or ended as well as a more or less formal calling the meeting to order and closing. This distinguishes the talk that happens in meetings, in the form of the oratorical genres and styles information-giving and discussion, from the same genres and styles that occur in what might be called informal conversation. Perhaps this formal frame is needed because many of the participants know each other personally and often talk informally before, after, and outside of meetings. This could also be due to the young
Once the meeting is enacted, the more bureaucratic form of meetings might be considered “burdensome” or inauthentic to the members who would usually speak freely to each other without formal turn-taking strategies conducted by a meeting chair. Perhaps also the amount of information included in meetings, and the nature of that information because it is primarily related to the organization’s progress, might be seen as inauthentic to participants. Although this is the primary goal of meetings for members of SPC, if this information-sharing seems to lack “purpose”, then the meeting might also be seen as a “meeting for the sake of a meeting”, which is related again to the burdensome nature of meetings. This might contribute to how frequently meetings are held. The cycle of meetings takes between one week to five months for the next meeting to occur. This is including all groups of the organization, not single groups themselves.
For example, the fundraising committee has not had an official meeting since November 2012, which is well over seventeen months between meetings as of this writing in April 2014.
Perhaps the marked difference between meetings and more informal conversation might contribute to the frequency with which members metacommunicate about meetings. However, the meeting is beginning to take on a more relational interpretation as of September 2013. Mary expressed that meetings can be used for “showing we’re a team”. This goal might be related to the genres and styles related to discussion used in meetings and idealized for meetings. In the more recent board meetings in September 2013 and December 2013, the meetings had more discussion-like turns, with participants building ideas off of each other, as seen in excerpt 13 above. Mary began using questions in order to elicit more participation from members, and it seems to have worked so far. To further emphasize the relational aspect of meetings,
This methodology, conceived by Hymes (1972) and adapted by Schwartzman (1989) seeks to understand the communicative forms and functions used by groups and communities, particularly in regard to meetings. Ethnographers of communication focus on how people speak, what speech does, and the comparable differences and similarities between ways of speaking.
As Fairhurst and Putnam (2004) noted, many ethnographies of communication in organizations tend to take the organization as given, and Milburn (2004) points out that many ethnographies do the same with “speech communities”. By treating the organization as given, Fairhurst and Putnam (2004) show how this use of “organization” tends to treat it as an object, or a “black box” container. Thus, this use of organization allows researchers to examine the top-down way that organizations affect ways of speaking, such as meetings, and people. Similarly here, I have treated the organization as constitutive of a particular form and function of meetings, which fits the organization-as-object perspective.