Have you ever wondered...

how many seconds the average community television viewer could bear to watch any of the discussion groups you’ve ever been in? I just spent two hours during which I learned nothing and enjoyed nothing—except for the snacks. Why do I go to these things? I don’t mostly, but flattery works, and I was flattered by someone who thought I had a lot to contribute, although that I knew very well that I did not.

The following is a synthesis of how I commonly experience such groups.  Whether they are social, religious, political, literary, or hobby oriented,    hardly matters. Many people experience groups differently. I suspect that most of those people are raging extroverts.

I arrive early but the meeting starts late, and people continue to arrive well after that. Sometimes, it will be in a place where everyone can be seen and heard, other times not. We are instructed to “tell us your name” and to answer a getting-to-know-you question. No waver is extended to those like myself who had rather be taken out and shot than to answer such questions. I can’t focus on what anyone else is saying until I’m done with my own little speech, so I try to be among the first to go.

With introductions out of the way, the discussion begins, often when either the host (if there is one) or a self-starter from the group tells about something they heard or read. The subject thus presented becomes the group’s focus for one to seven minutes, which is about how long it takes for someone else to turn the conversation in another direction, a direction which might be an enlargement of the current topic but is usually unrelated.

Politics and religion are always popular subjects, but since people are generally in basic agreement, the discussion often degenerates into snide remarks about the opposition under the guise of humor. This soon becomes tedious and to the seeming relief of almost everyone, a new topic is born. The pace accelerates when someone makes a trenchant point regarding this topic, and someone else either offers a doubly trenchant enlargement or a doubly trenchant counterpoint. Then follow more points, enlargements, and counterpoints and, finally, counterpoints to enlargements of counterpoints, combined with an occasional clarification or question (often rhetorical).

A woman who hasn’t said a word for an hour tries to speak, but a loquacious man talks over her, and everyone joins him in pretending he didn’t hear her. If people allowed themselves to acknowledge his rudeness, their silence would imply approval, so it’s better to keep quiet in the interest of inner peace and outer harmony.

A woman whom I would suspect of being on meth if she were young and skinny becomes so frantic to speak that she squirms in her chair like a child who needs to go potty. When more people are watching her than the speaker, he surrenders the floor. Her victory ends six minutes later when someone finally interrupts her in mid-sentence, which is the only way to interrupt her since her speech lacks commas, periods, or even spaces between words. Upon losing the floor, she looks stunned, like a rich child whose lollipop was grabbed from her hand by a Bowery beggar before she even got in the first good lick.

The host of the group—knowing a little of my difficulties in such settings—makes a few attempts to draw me out by calling my name and asking what I think of such-and-such. Silence reigns as every pair of eyes turns my way. I read in them the question: “What’s wrong with you that you need encouragement to talk?” I look at the host who is smiling a self-congratulatory smile that seems to say, “I’ve done my part; now let’s see if you can do yours,” and I mumble something—I don’t know what. The discussion soon moves away from me like a receding tide behind which I lie choked and battered.

A man takes the floor from the person who took it from the person who took it from potty dance woman. As he talks, his voice gains volume and his gestures gain speed. I speculate that he’s subconsciously trying to forestall interruption by working himself into a frenzy of passion and implied volatility. A third of the group speaks little if at all, but the talkers are either: oblivious, accepting, resigned, or like it that way. Maybe they mistake silence for attention and consider it a tribute to how adoringly scintillating they are.

I’ve wanted to leave since the meeting was fifteen minutes old, but it’s impossible to exit gracefully that early. I decide to stay for 90 minutes, but I stick it out for 112 so I won’t scream "NO!" if someone asks, “Do you really have to leave so early?” There’s a fair chance that no one would, but there are people who delight in directing everyone’s rapt attention at some poor schmuck whose only crime was trying to sneak out the door. I remind myself to walk slowly when my mind finally rebels and orders my body to get it out of there. The cold air and silence are welcoming, but I’m too drained to enjoy them. I’m also sleepy, and my head hurts. I ask myself what good I got from going, and I can’t think of anything.

So, Snowbrush, why the hell don’t you just charge in there and take the group in a direction that’s more pleasing to you. They might even welcome it.

I’ve tried that on a few occasions, and I found it to be a constant uphill struggle that few if any people supported—at least openly—but that did attract criticism. My belief is that groups are as they are because that’s how the majority of the people want them. If I’m in a group, and I don’t like the way it works, I do better to leave at the outset rather than try to implement change, make enemies as a result, and then leave.

I also have a personal problem that makes me ineffective in groups. Namely, my pause time is slow. This is a term that I made up to represent the interval between the time when one person finishes speaking and another person begins a response. When slowness to speak is your style, and you’re shy on top of it, you’re dead meat in most kinds of groups. For me to speak in a group, I have to work myself into a pace that feels aggressive, if not hostile. This guarantees that I won’t enjoy speaking or have anything worthwhile to say even when I do get the floor. In fact, I’m sometimes so surprised when every eye in the room finally turns in my direction that I forget what I wanted to say.

On top of this, people often don’t hear what I’m saying, or they can’t understand my pronunciation (when I was a child, I had multiple speech problems, and I’m not completely past regarding my voice as an ineloquent embarrassment with an icing of Southern hick). Like the woman who finally tried to speak only to have someone talk over her, people sometimes talk over me. Whether they actually talk over me anymore than they talk over anyone else, I can’t honestly say because I haven’t kept count. Maybe I just hate it more. I not only consider interruptions rude, but I take them as proof that I wasted my time even trying to be heard.

I also see most discussion groups as being mostly dishonest. Beneath the shallowness that passes itself off as rationality, erudition, and politeness, lay the deeper truths of dominance and submission, of right brain versus left brain, of why groups create unacknowledged roles for their members, of what part our species’ tribalistic nature played in bringing us together, of why different groups appear to react to conflict so similarly, and of whether the apparent acceptance of the thinly-veiled rudeness that some people use to get and keep the floor suggests that it is interpreted as a strength.

I believe that the people who understand the most about group dynamics aren’t the ones who do the most talking. The silent ones are essentially outsiders, and as such we can better observe the finer points. This outsider views most groups as embarrassingly bad theatrical performances in which the same players perform the same painfully shallow roles before the same silent and unexpressive audiences, sometimes for years. Whatever good I possess—and I see this as being true of most people—isn’t likely to appear in the context of a discussion group.

40 comments:

Myrna R. said...

I never realized we have so much in common. I'm shy, soft spoken and do not like groups. I'm more the person who observes the dynamics silently.

I've never had the depth of observation skills you display here though. I really enjoyed reading your take on this. You write so well, with some humor but I know you're quite serious.

PhilipH said...

Hi Snowy old bean. Great piece of writing, as per usual. Question:
Why the heck do you EVER go to such meetings? Why?
Wouldn't suit me at all. I once joined a group where we were all trying to learn "How to Win Friends and Influence People". Of course, you'll know the writer of this tome: Dale Carnegie.
It was nothing like the group meeting you describe in your post because there was a 'Course Leader' and a couple of assistants. They kept a sort of control of the group to a large extent. For example: one task was to speak for just 60 seconds in front of the group. Time up! Group leader makes HIS comment. Next person steps up - and so on.
I found it instructive up to a point and met a few decent people but I've never bothered with such meetings, or anything like you've described, ever again. Just not my bag.
So I ask again: why the F do you bother?

Elisabeth said...

Groups can be crazy places, Snow and the one you describe here sounds particularly so. For me group experience always begins in families, and hen multiplies.

If you have ten people in a group, the each of the ten once came from a family as a child and oftentimes, each group member falls into behaving in groups as they did in the family of origin. Hence the volatility and the craziness. Thanks for a fascinating post, snow. I'm sorry that your experience was so awful.

Natalie said...

Hi Sweetheart,
I studied Social Welfare a few years back, and one of the classes was Group Work. While I love groups for about 10 minutes (long enough for me to get bored)most of the experiences were like being eaten alive by a bunch of hungry Piranhas.
.

Snowbrush said...

"I'm shy, soft spoken and do not like groups."

I wonder if most people who have blogs along the nature of ours aren't introverts. Extroverts probably don't feel the need for so much reflection.

"Why the heck do you EVER go to such meetings?"

To find friends, learn things, build community, and promote common values.

"I'm sorry that your experience was so awful."

I seem to have failed to make it clear that this post represents something akin to a composite group. It depicts how I SEE groups rather than how a particular group is.

Hi Sweetheart,

Hi, Sweetheart yourself, so glad to have you drop by. Seems like it's been a while.

The Tusk said...

Your critique of the critiques was lovely. I won't be particular, but defensive for you to you.

Your observation of how you see groups in my opinion was spot on in your opinion, and I was entertained in its observation. So bravo.

Part of my lack or inability to blog freely, is that I don't take the time to pre-write what I post. I begin I write I edit all in stream of conscious and shortly and poorly on my part I run out of time and my attempt at blog is a failure.

I have commented on your blogs in the past with words of advice and I have been scolded by you, that you only were looking for a reason to part of a discussion, not for advice, and clearly not from an unprofessional like myself in the advice column. Hence, we still remain Bloggo Friends.

My observation of your reason to to attend a focus group, plain and simply,... a reason to belong to a group.

I have been bandying about the use of the words Ingegno and Genialiti.

Without translating these for you, I will simply say, you have a way with words and an ability to reason with people or persons in a way profitable for their own understanding.

I have visited your blog for an inspiration to write on my own, thank you.

ellen abbott said...

Oh, there is so much material here. I don't think I would ever go to a 'discussion' group. I belonged to a women's group for about two years with a 'facilitator'. that was an interesting experience. we met once a week to talk about ourselves and our places in our relationships, families, and the world. when I was young, I wanted nothing more than to belong in a 'group', something that was always denied me. the time or two I thought I had achieved that, once as a kid, once as an adult, in the end it didn't work out well for me.

Being talked over. As a woman, I think I experience that way more than any man I know, even the reticent ones. Men generally, in my experience, seem to think that it is acceptable behavior to talk over women and it pisses me off. I will usually lose interest and retreat from any conversation because the battle to be heard isn't worth it in most cases, unless it's important to me. that said, I will not hesitate and take command of a situation that is floundering and no one else is standing up.

kj said...

"understand before seeking to be understood" steven covey (who is not my favorite but maybe apropos here)

no more discussion groups for you, snow!

i feel the same as you about let me get my introduction out of the way or i can't concentrate on anyone else until i do.

i'm a talker. i have opinions on everything. finally, i've learned to be careful not to monopolize.

and i suffer foolish or stupid chatter very impatiently and very badly,

no discussion groups for me either!

kisskiss, snow :^)
kj

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

I too feel like an outsider in most groups. Mainly I feel that so many people feel the need to be heard, that most topics are beaten like the horse. If I don't have something different to add...why waste the time?

Your comment on your speech patterns reminded me of the first production manager I worked closely with. I was in my 20s and he was a former child actor from Chaplin movies. He was kind and gentle and one of the most effective bosses I've ever had. He too would pause before he spoke. In fast talking Hollywood, people didn't know what to make of him. I've seen many a department head sit before him asking for something outrageous... say a helicopter. He would pause... and the dept. head would start to stammer and list a bunch of reasons he needed the helicopter... and eventually decide he didn't need it. That he could make do with a far less expensive crane. All because my boss didn't answer fast enough. Some thought he was manipulative. I thought he was brilliant!

The Elephant's Child said...

I dislike groups and meeting for what sounds to be similar reasons to yours.
There are a couple (linked to my voluntary work) which I have to attend (and the irony of compulsory meetings for voluntary work does not escape me). I hate them. I attend and sit as quietly as I can until I can leave. Though it seems that there is always at least one person in attendance that has to go on and on and on.

River said...

I have never been in any discussion group and after reading this I'll be sure to continue avoiding them. I have a hard enough time making conversation at the best of times.
Quite simply, I suck at small talk.

Snowbrush said...

"Part of my lack or inability to blog freely, is that I don't take the time to pre-write what I post. "

Tusk, I edit, and edit, and edit because I can never get my writing as good as I want to make it. For any given post, the ways I might have said the same thing differently are endless. It therefore strikes me an impossible situation, but for some reason, I have a great need to write, and I enjoy it immensely--including the editing. This is partly because I have a computer. I can't imagine how, until a very few decades ago, the best that people had to write with were pens and typewriters. I've been there/done that, but I'm glad those days are over.

"I will usually lose interest and retreat from any conversation because the battle to be heard isn't worth it."

Me too. I could certainly insist that the other person let me have my say, but he's already demonstrated his lack of interest, so I usually just cut short the conversation.

"no more discussion groups for you, snow!"

There are ways that they can work wonderfully for me, but the group has to make agreements that everyone shares in their hearts as opposed to simply giving lip-service to them. For instance, an agreement to divide the time more or less equally among all participants is a great help as is an agreement that anyone can interrupt the discussion to talk about process if something doesn't feel right. I have given some thought to starting my own group. I have a large pool to draw from, but I'm simply not sure if I want to go to the trouble.

"it seems that there is always at least one person in attendance that has to go on and on and on."

NO, not in Australia too! Seriously, this is why group agreements are so important. Without them conversation is a free-for-all, and people like you and I will always lose because we either can't or won't play the game.

"I suck at small talk."

I'm better than a lot of people at it, but I often feel guilty afterwards. Life is a lot easier lived alone. Of course, I live with Peggy, but what I mean is that when you reduce the number of people you interact with, you eliminate the problems that arise when you're around those people. Unfortunately, you eliminate the benefits too, so it's always necessary to take withdrawal seriously.

Snowbrush said...

"He would pause... and the dept. head would start to stammer"

Slowness to respond can be taken to imply that you're taking the talker seriously and want to give him your best thinking. On the other hand, people sometimes think you're hard of hearing or dim-witted. Apparently, if the speaker is your boss, the experience can be thoroughly unnerving. I would have loved to have met your boss.

Kay Dennison said...

i find most discussion groups annoying so I avoid them.

Marion said...

I'm amazed that you would sit through something that boring for so long. SNOW!!! Life's too short. I have a big mouth, but I don't do group things anymore. The older I get, the more I dislike groups of people, especially those who interrupt like you described. I used to attend Alanon until the meetings all became the same. They did help me, but after a while they were all alike.

Have a great weekend, Snow. xo

Brianne said...

You had me with your first sentence! I think you should hand a paper in at the end of the discussion. Bring your laptop! There would be no interruptions and I seem to see no pauses as I read your commentary. Yes, a written synopsis on the group discussion would be a perfect solution. Oh, but what about guiding the group to certain discussions within the allotted time? You could submit written commentary periodically throughout the meeting. Make sure you hit on the finer points! Type those in all CAPS.

I left the "work world" in October of last year and haven't had the joy of meetings since. Your post could describe so many meetings I have sat in on. How funny, we are so similar. Thanks for the laugh. Peace. Brianne

The Blog Fodder said...

You are a brave man to even go to these groups. Bad enough when it is a must go - like a community decision making group, parent-teacher etc. I think too slow on my feet so I prefer to write. Even then I can put my foot in it too deep for easy extraction

julie said...

...I guess we do these things because deep down we all want to be part of a tribe......xo

kylie said...

groups leave me frustrated and desperate. it doesnt matter what i say, if i get a chance to say it, nobody cares anyway. it's like theres a tattoo on my head saying "dont bother to listen" and i have
hi there snow!
no idea why, its not like i talk so much that i could be dismissed as loving the sound of my own voice.

a few years back i organised social functions for the women of my church and did so sucessfully for a few years. i eventually slipped out of it feeling that my efforts were misunderstood and my leadership role was replaced by a commitee. the commitee organised a grand total of two successful functions because no one individual had ownership of the process. the group thing just didnt work.

you know, snowy, i am an extrovert and i think i am one of the most reflective people around, i'm not a very extroverted extrovert, though.

xxx

Snowbrush said...

So many of you appear to feel as I do that I don't what to think. Are my perceptions really so accurate that potentially millions of people share them, or are bloggers simply a subgroup of those people who find most kinds of face-to-face social interactions unrewarding, and so they support one another's neuroses via the Internet? I don't get the sense that the latter is necessarily the case with bloggers more than with anyone else, so that tilts things toward the former.

tattytiara said...

You review discussion groups the way other people review trips to the zoo. I enjoy that.

kj said...

hahaha tattytiara

Rita said...

I don't really consider a discussion group social interaction. Usually more like a voice for people with platforms...at least the ones I've been to. I am quite social, pretty good at small talk, blog, love people, am considered outgoing...but I avoid confrontation and argument like the plague. Hence, would avoid being involved in a discussion group. I prefer people one-on-one or in very small informal groups, myself.

Growing up in a family where everyone talked at once and we could have three conversations going at a big family table of relatives and contribute to 2 or 3 of them simultaneously...I am notorious for talking over people. I can only apologize to the world for being brought up with no manners in that regard.

Oddly, shy people have always been attracted to me, though.

Beau's Mom said...

The only thing accomplished in a meeting is scheduling the next one.

I have had to attend several "Village" meetings since moving into this small HOA and I waste weeks dreading them.

I have learned everyone's personalities by now and know beforehand who will speak, who will bluster and rant, and who will wander into foreign territory like the Mad Hatter at a tea party.

I sit quietly, try to smile so no one will think harshly of me, and blow the hinges off the door the minute it's over.

yoborobo said...

Just the thought of going to a discussion group causes me to break into a cold sweat. There are always people that seem intent on sucking all the oxygen out of the room. I tend to doodle nervously, and worry that someone is going to ask me a question. No discussion groups for me, Snow! I'd much prefer a pub. :) Pam

julie said...

Where are you Snow? Hope all is well... :-)

Mad Mind said...

This may be the reason I don't join groups. But then again, I might find it interesting just to listen to ramblings of others. I'm not saying they don't have anything to say, I'm just saying that sometimes they really have no idea how they sound to others.

Phoenix said...

You just described about 90% of all the church meetings I have to attend. Sometimes I just want to yell "JUST VOTE ALREADY" because it's been an hour of people being side-tracked. I'm not shy by any means but most of the time I don't want to waste people's time when I have nothing to contribute - and if I have nothing to contribute, I won't talk.

I sometimes think people just show up to meetings to hear themselves speak. Ugh.

Ed Pilolla said...

lots of good stuff here. first, this was a riot. i got to see the group like on a highlight reel, with you as the announcer. it was a blast, especially as everyone's eyes turn to you as the moderator has a smug smile on his face. you are a joy to read. it's easy to see you spent time on your copy.

introvert, extrovert, shy, gregarious, group people, one-on-one people, bloggers, what's the formula for why we excel in a particular role or enjoy being alone? and how can that preference change, which it does seem to do. like i said, good stuff here.

for me, being a member of a group means having a role, as you note. that's fine. but strong personalities guide a group one way or the other. i also would break away from the pack before attempting to move it in another direction.

bloggers are like social refugees:) or maybe i should speak for myself:)

Chrisy said...

To me these sort of gatherings are hell on earth and I don't go anymore...happy to spend time with a handful of people at a time but anymore and I just feel like I'm watching a bad movie. Did enjoy reading your synopsis of the night tho....

Phoenix said...

Re: your comment on my blog, you forgot to finish with: "Besides, I'm already awesome." ;)

And thanks for the kind comment about my picture. Much appreciated.

ladyfi said...

This is my idea of a nightmare!

GEM said...

I don't watch TV.

I miss blogging.

I miss you.

I hope that you and yours are happy and well...

Hugs and love!

Chartreuse said...

Someone already said above what I wanted to say: Why the f--- do you go to such groups? But then you answered that question. I don't believe you though. I think you go to things like discussion groups so you can write a hilarious (and true) account of other people's foibles. Anyway, I loved your piece. How come I never read you before? Will try to make amends.

Helen said...

Give me a good book club discussion and I'm happy as a clam .. great post .. wish I could have been there. Agree with Chartreuse ... that discussion group was lush with good material

Robin said...

I am not one to ever enter a "Discussion Group".... Blogging is my "group"...and even then, I have a small and beloved circle of friends whom I share my "Life" with. You, dear Snow..are one of them....

Love,

♥ Robin ♥

kj said...

okay, where are you, snow?

you okay?

just checkin.....

love
kj

Snowbrush said...

"where are you, snow? you okay?"

I'm fine. I've actually been writing more than usual deal lately, but I never have posted most of what I write because I don't consider it good enough.

What I haven't been doing much of lately is visiting blogs. Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed by the ever growing number of bloggers that I very much want to keep up with, but can't without putting so many hours a week into blogging that I neglect other things that I either want to do or need to do. When I start feeling so much pressure to get caught up with visiting blogs that it's decidedly not fun anymore, I tend to stop altogether--or nearly so--for awhile.

Marion said...

I've tried to join certain groups which centre around something I'm interested in. It has never worked out for me. In one of the groups I joined, it took years for me to extricate myself, since on top of being quiet and shy, I also did not want to hurt anyone's feelings by quitting, ha!

In this case for sure, age is wisdom and I just don't go to meetings or join any groups anymore. xx

C Woods said...

I've been in groups like this. The one that became most successful was one that changed the format. They asked for volunteers to do presentations. If I volunteered I could speak on a topic of my choice (related to the group's focus) or invite someone as a guest speaker. We suggested 20-30 minutes followed by questions and responses for 15 minutes or so. Then we broke up for refreshments and socialized in small groups. If one group didn't interest me, I moved on to another. So, in the formal presentation I usually learned something from someone who knew more about a topic than I did, then, I could join a small informal group that was discussing something of interest to me. It was sort of like milling around at a party or family gathering.

The other successful group made no pretense of carrying on a one-topic discussion and was basically phase 2 of the other group I described. We met for dinner and just socialized ---hitting on topics that would be of interest to group members but diverging into anything from weather to the local sports teams. This was not quite as good as the 1st group because once one was seated at a table, one was pretty-much stick with conversing with the 3-4 people closeby. It wasn't so easy to move to another discussion.