The fine art of shutting up

A few years ago, I attended a two-day work meeting with a few dozen others from all over the world. The latter part matters: though the meeting was conducted in English, a majority of the attendees weren’t native English speakers and in quite a few cases not exactly fluent in English. (I lived in England for many years and consider myself a fluent speaker, but I am not a native speaker.)

At the end of the meeting, a brave individual pointed out that most of the talking had been done by a small number of individuals, all of whom were fluent in English. By the time he himself had put his thoughts into English words, he said, someone else had already started speaking.

He was right. And I had been one of those individuals.

This was rather awkward, as once upon a time, I too had been one of those people for whom attending a meeting in English meant spending a lot of effort just to comprehend what was being discussed. It made it harder for me to be an active participant, just like now it was harder for others.

There is a relatively simple solution to this: the use of microphones and session chairs who ensure that people only speak up when they have a microphone; and ideally also make sure that it’s not always the same people who are speaking.

Since that meeting, I make a point of only speaking when I have been given a microphone, even when a chair doesn’t enforce this rule. But also, because I know I may forget this when I get passionate about a subject, I try to take a seat at the back of the room, from where I can’t easily start having a one-on-one discussion with the chair.

Finally, this isn’t just about non-native speakers. It is known that women and other members of underrepresented groups tend to be disproportionally ignored in meetings. These rules should also help make them equal participants in such meetings.

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