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Business meetings

  • 1. Introduction: Conceptualization and classification of meetings
  • 2. Leadership, decision-making, and consensus
  • 3. Conflict, power, and politeness
  • 4. Gender issues in business meetings
  • 5. Efficiency and structure vs. emergence and perceived chaos
  • 6. Further research: Self-organization and ambiguity as resilient resources in meetings
  • 7. Conclusion

Introduction: Conceptualization and classification of meetings

Meetings are highly intricate social interactions involving complex linguistic activities in the smallest spaces, and this complexity is one of the reasons why they have a bad reputation. They are often regarded as tedious, boring, and sometimes even as superfluous and a waste of time. On the other hand, it is well-nigh impossible to imagine companies without them. In fact, meetings are among the key defining elements of any corporation. From its discourse-analytical perspective, the present chapter will argue that it is precisely this Janus-faced character that is constitutive of well-functioning organizations (cf. Section 5 and Menz 2000).

The so-called self-help literature defines meetings above all as goal-oriented exploratory encounters of three or more persons who pursue a common aim (e.g., Henkel 2007; Liraz 2013). This definition may sound sensible enough; however, it is inadequate and reflects a very limited understanding of communication. Indeed, such simplistic conceptualizations contribute to the negative evaluation of meetings mentioned above. In contrast, a sociolinguistic and discourse-analytical perspective, as adopted in this overview, can help to question how individuals ascribe stereotypes to people and processes (e.g., to chairpersons, to participants’ supposedly gendered behaviour, and to meetings as a genre) and, by adding a critical eye, assist in avoiding reifying and disguising assumptions.

A sociolinguistic, discourse-analytical point of view conceptualizes meetings as being extremely complex, involving a high number of tasks and goals that have to be taken into consideration. In most cases, meetings belong to forms of internal corporate communication (unlike most negotiations; see Chapter 5) and have all of the following characteristics (Domke 2008), among others:

DOI 10.1515/9781614514862-006

  • - They are to be understood as a work-oriented form of oral interaction - in contrast with mainly relationship-oriented forms such as small talk during coffee breaks, etc.
  • - They are bounded in time and place, which distinguishes them from random exchanges;
  • - They have a structure and a sequential procedure, which is generally taken for granted by the participants;
  • - They are based on the physical presence of people and consequently on face-to- face interaction (in contrast to, for example, video conferencing; cf. Meier 1997);
  • - They are characterized by an interactively co-constructed beginning (which need not necessarily coincide with the date of the actual meeting) and an interactively displayed end;
  • - Their participants are ascribed different function and position roles, familiar to all. Those roles are constructed and/or challenged interactively (cf. Section 3 and Schmitt and Heidtmann 2002, among others);
  • - Linguistic actions characteristic of them are therefore informing, discussing, planning and assigning work, but also showing dissent (Dannerer 1999).

The number of striking similarities that can be identified among meetings across all organizations (companies, universities, NGOs, etc.) seem to outweigh perceived differences. Hence, from a discourse-analytical perspective it makes sense to speak of meetings as a separate genre within spoken linguistic activities in business (Angouri and Marra 2010).

The rest of the chapter examines various key concepts for business meetings and is structured as follows. Section 2 describes consensus-based strategies of leadership and decision-making that may not conform to the stereotypical expectations of business communication. In contrast, Section 3 will discuss research that focuses on conflict and disagreement. Section 4 is devoted to the important question of how gendered (and, in some ways, also ethnicized) workplaces are increasingly becoming the focus of attention in existing research. Section 5 turns to the concept of efficiency, which, from a managerial perspective, lies at the core of any activity. In meetings, however, it must be seen as a double-edged sword since apparent inefficiency may turn out to be of great value in other respects. The chapter will end by highlighting some research gaps that are of interest for future (interdisciplinary) research (Section 6). As the role of the chairperson is a defining feature of meetings, it will be examined in all sections.

As a simple search in the research database Scopus yields an astounding 111,000 hits for the keyword business meetings, the focus of the present chapter must be narrowed. It is therefore limited to research concerned with the analysis of naturally- occurring speech events, and excludes studies relying solely on self-reporting techniques like questionnaires and interviews. Moreover, all the literature discussed here involves at least some close micro-analysis of spoken discourse and references to discourse-analytic approaches. A further, necessary restriction excluded studies on intercultural meetings, despite the fact that they represent a key area of research into business meetings (e.g., Angouri 2010; Bilbow 2002, 2007; Kell et al. 2007; Louhiala-Salminen and Charles 2008; Poncini 2002, 2004; Rogerson-Revell 2007; Ronkainen 2009; Spencer-Oatey 2010; Spencer-Oatey and Xing 2005; Zhu 2011). However, this topic will be discussed in Chapter 11.

 
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