Clubs, schools and civic organizations hold meetings because they want to 1) collect new ideas and air differences of opinion, 2) accomplish business, 3) go home.
Miss Manners has not actually seen this list on any organization's agenda. That irresistible come-on, "We want to hear YOUR ideas!" is only scrawled on the flyer, or pronounced breathlessly over the telephone, by those whose task it is to round up a quorum. The unscrupulous have even been known to add, "and we promise to get you home early." But the actual agenda contains only item two.Nevertheless, Miss Manners has noticed that accomplishing business is of secondary interest to people who attend meetings. For the first half of the event, their priorities are as listed above. In the second half, the order is reversed. When the people who are looking at their watches and simultaneously murmuring, "What time is it?" overwhelmingly outnumber the people giving their opinions, the meeting is over, whether the person running it realizes it or not.
Let it be noted that Miss Manners is speaking of meetings of more or less worthy organizations, in which participation is voluntary. Business meetings, when participants are being paid for the time, and professional reputations may be at stake, have their own problems.
When everyone is volunteering, you would think the joint cause would be more important than individual egos. That is, you might think that if you had never done volunteer work. Why otherwise efficient and temperate people, many of them demonstrably capable of running the world, should get long-winded and emotional in their extracurricular activities, Miss Manners does not pretend to explain. Perhaps it is exactly because their livelihoods are not involved.
In the interests of the hapless functionaries who run such events, Miss Manners will suggest a bit of etiquette to keep meetings bearable.
That lady or gentleman occupying The Chair has, of course, a separate agenda with only one item: Get everyone to rubber-stamp decisions already made by those who have bothered to find out what is involved. This is known as Guided Democracy.
But since administering it involves calming down some of the membership, and making the rest feel they have contributed to the cause, Miss Manners' item 1 is also on the schedule. And since it is necessary to have the meeting last long enough for the members to feel that attending was worthwhile, but not so long that they resolve never to do so again, item 3 is there as well.
It is item 1 where the trouble lies. Robert has kindly set Rules for item 2, and motions for adjournment are not difficult to inspire.
Miss Manners does not eliminate the possibility that people who have not been doing behind-the-scenes work may suddenly come forth at meetings with excellent ideas and valid objections, presented politely and succinctly. She merely notes that unruly and repetitive participants are not unknown, either.
A chairman's first line of defense is to thank the speaker. "Thank you," perhaps accompanied by "I believe you have made yourself clear," is pronounced crisply to an abrasive speaker. If the object is only to inform a rambling speaker that his time is up, "Thank you!" is called out gaily and loudly, but with a pleasant smile.
An experienced chairman does not need to pause for breath before calling on someone else. Some use the opportunity to bring in reinforcements - an assertive speaker who will help squelch reluctance or relapses on the part of the yielding speaker.
A kinder ploy is practiced by a gentleman of Miss Manners' acquaintance who believes in calling on the inarticulate by saying, "You haven't said anything - what's your opinion?"
Miss Manners rather likes this method, because it draws on a residual sense of fairness in the membership, and everyone has a chance to calm down while the embarrassed object generally voices agreement with both sides.
Her own contribution to getting everyone home is to tell well-meaning people who keep vehemently restating their views what her own mamma used to say to dear Uncle Henry when he did that. "The trouble with our discussions," dear Mamma would say, "is that you think that if I disagree with you, it must be because I don't understand your position."