When we look back on our working lives and wonder where the time has gone, the answer is, of course, meetings. The meeting is to modern office work what the hunt was to our primeval ancestors. Beneath the surface, civility is where money is made and survival is ensured — while an intriguing variety of biscuits sits untouched and brightly lit in the center of the wood-effect table.
Though there is always much to talk about and an agenda to get through, the protocol of meetings dictates that they cannot begin too abruptly. There must be at least seven (but never more) minutes of chat, a piece of dialogue entirely unrelated to the real reason why one has left one's desk — and which meanders painfully around insincere considerations of the weather, the children and a recent sporting event. It is embarrassment that causes the chat.
In a democratic egalitarian society, the person who has called the meeting hesitates before too clearly revealing its purpose to the subordinate or supplicant party seated across the biscuits. Just as manners were invented to disguise the brutishness of our appetites, so, too, the chat conceals the shame at the ruthless drives that pulsate beneath the politeness of office civilization. We may be itching to scold, order, bark, hire or fire, but, as if we essentially had nothing on our minds, we remark on the unusual chilliness of the season.
Yet it is a recklessly naive employee who inadvertently continues the chat for even a fraction of a minute longer than the time subtly allotted to it by the most powerful person in the room. We all know the naive, touching Don Quixotes who sally forth on an over-long anecdote just after the chairperson has mumbled the customary "Right, then."
What blatherers we humans are. If only we could communicate with the abbreviated accuracy of algebraic equations, and yet it is cheering that big decisions about the future of pipelines and data storage centers can be reached within a slurry of "To be honests" and "It could be argued thats".
There is often a moment in the meeting when something external happens which brings an element of self-consciousness to proceedings: an ambulance, hammering from upstairs, a fat fly obsessively buzzing around one participant. One can't ignore the issue — though one has to be relatively senior or cocky to draw attention to it: "This fly is clearly interested in tax deferment ..."
What immediate comedy and horror would result if a machine were plugged into our brains, beaming up on a PowerPoint screen all the thoughts we were having as we navigated the agenda; it would show our sexual fantasies, longings and despair while a little more sand trickled from the upper chamber of life's hourglass until we finally reached point 9.8 on the agenda.
Alain de Botton is the author of the book How Proust Can Change Your Life. He lives in London.