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.