Garbage Time

Yesterday I attended a meeting at which a lot of appropriate things were said.  After that, the meeting deteriorated into a free for all of bad questions and posturing. It is that latter part of the meeting that I am calling garbage time.

I’d like to speculate a little about how to understand meetings like these, and especially the contribution that the notion of garbage time brings to that understanding. Then I’d like to offer an abrupt change of perspective that was given to me for free by Barbara Tyler. [1]

How the idea of “Garbage Time” helps

It gives you a way to think about the good part of the meeting. There is a purpose to be achieved, let’s say. You are here to describe a program and I am here to understand the program. We have a common interest. That’s the part of the meeting that is like the game.

garbage 2Real issues are at stake. One team is going to win and another will lose. I want to be on the winning team so I subordinate any other interest I might have to the team’s needs. Ordinarily, for instance, I’d rather score than rebound, but winning tonight is going to require more rebounding, so I pass up my shot and get in position for the rebound. This is so clearly what the team needs that I might not even be conscious that I am doing it. But if you see me doing it, you will know how to understand it.

But when that part of the game is over—we are so far ahead that we couldn’t really lose or so far behind that we couldn’t really win—the reason for all that discipline is over as well. Now I can take the shots I had wanted to take and maybe some shots I shouldn’t ever take. I take them now. It’s garbage time.

I think that participants at a public meeting make judgments just like that one. There is a time when the success of the meeting is up for grabs. We may succeed if we focus carefully and we will surely lose if we allow our discipline to lapse and our individual interests to take precedence. So we keep ourselves from doing the things that will cause us to fail. Instead, we do the things that the meeting requires. That’s how we all win at a public meeting. We keep the benefits high and the costs low.

The notion of garbage time helps to clarify, by contrast, the real game part of the meeting is and when it is no longer “a real meeting;” it is only garbage time. So these function as indicators. When we see these things starting to happen, we conclude that the real meeting is over. In a game, inappropriate shots and lax defense and missed assignments are all indicators we can rely on. What can we rely on to help us identify garbage time in a public meeting. [2]

I think examples might be more useful than categories here. I have two in mind.

Let’s say that I am a resident attending the meeting and that I was, in my career, the master of some skill that bears on this meeting. Accounting or programming or systems analysis. Because it is garbage time, I spend a good deal of time informing the other residents of my skills and I imply that if there is anything wrong with the information being presented, I will find it.

Is that an indicator that it is garbage time? Probably.  Going on and on about my skills seems needlessly self-aggrandizing to me but what we really need to know is whether this account would have been withheld earlier in the meeting—when the game was still in doubt. But if it is true—I am postulating that it is true for the purposes of this example—that she would ordinarily have disciplined herself to the purposes of the meeting and would not have made all those personal claims, then the fact that she did make the claims could be taken as an indicator that the “real contest” part of the meeting had ended and that garbage time had begun. And that is what we are looking for; we are looking for indicators of the transition.

Or, for our second example, let’s say that some explanation is made about changes in the garbage 3cost of parking. A resident is recognized and goes on for awhile about how rich our area is in public transit and how, as a result, there is very little need for a resident to have a car at all.  That’s the real way to deal with increases in parking fees!. Let’s imagine that this resident is well-known for his pro-mass transit views and nearly always expresses those views in private or small group conversations. It seems odd to us that this familiar pitch would be made again in a public meeting and that the time of the meeting would be taken up by what is, essentially, a public service announcement. But if it is true that this resident would not have allowed himself to make this pitch in a public meeting during “game time,” then his willingness to allow it now is yet another indicator that we have arrived at garbage time.

When things like that start happening, it represents the judgment of the attendees that the useful part of the meeting is over and the willingness to exercise discipline on behalf of the common goals begins to decline markedly. And of course, since the value of the meeting as a public meeting declines rapidly when people begin to use the common time as a time of personal grievances or private aggrandizement. So the more garbage there is, the more garbage there will be.

Another Perspective from the Tyler Coffee Klatch

All of the ideas so far begin with the public meeting. I have always begun with the meeting itself. We are having a meeting because there is a goal to be achieved by meeting together. The meeting is the primary thing and although it is true that the proceedings tend to get frayed toward the end, we can chalk those off to fatigue or frustration.

But Barbara Tyler said that she thinks some people go to the meeting specifically for the garbage time. That struck me immediately as quite likely. But I am raising it here because it is an analytical game changer. It starts at the other end of the process. It begins with the reasons to go to the meeting, not with the purpose of the meeting. I was really struck by that. I’m still excited by it.  It’s like discovering a new species.

In this view, people go to the meeting with no interest in the announced topic at all, but with the confident expectation that at the end of whatever focused consideration there is, there will be a time for the public airing of private grievances and the public posturing about past accomplishments and the public chastisement of anyone who has run afoul of that resident in the past. And the time of the meeting—garbage time—when those kinds of contributions are common is the reason for attending the meeting at all.

garbage 1Of course, I don’t want to argue that there are, in fact, people who think of the meetings that way. I don’t know whether there are or not. I don’t think I know anyone about whom I would say that—that they attend meetings just waiting for garbage time. On the other hand, this is a way of looking at the meeting that starts at a different place entirely. It understands the meeting as a way for individuals to meet their individual needs in public and that way of understanding the value of the meeting had never occurred to me and likely never would have.

[1] Ordinarily, I take good ideas wherever I find them and just tuck them into the narrative, but this one came as part of what I called Barbara’s Coffee Klatch, when I wrote about that gathering on our first anniversary here, so I’ll just go ahead and own up to where I got it.
[2] It isn’t anger, by the way. Sometimes, it seems that the presenters are not playing their roles well. They are withholding information the meeting needs, or demeaning the askers of inconvenient questions or pretending to “answer” a question by repeating the same non-answer that has been given several times before. I have seen groups get really angry at being treated that way. The temperature goes up and the volume goes up, but this is a natural part of the deliberations and no one leaves because of it. In fact, the agitation might have some entertainment value.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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