Comments on the side

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Comments on the side

By Tony Samson

INATTENTIVE participants at meetings ignore the speaker and quietly amuse themselves by offering running commentaries to seatmates and asking questions on the side. (Does he know what he’s talking about?) Side conversations between participants in a meeting or conference are distracting to those trying to listen to the speaker. Loudly whispered comments are not meant to be overheard by the one presenting: “note how he says “actually” before every phrase. I’ve counted 23 already.”

Side comments are annoying to a presenter. They are irrelevant and do not relate to the subject at hand. Calling attention to such inattentiveness (Can you please stop yapping there at the back?) only invites the rude chatterer to be even more pugnacious: Why? Is your presentation worth listening to?

Speaking out of turn is a habit quickly punished from childhood — stop butting in, can’t you see that the grown-ups are having a heated debate here? In school, chatty classmates are asked to do additional work when caught not paying attention to the teacher — write “I will pay attention” fifty times on the blackboard.

But side comments can be too enjoyable to ban socially. Is it related to freedom of expression? Digressions lessen tension and can introduce comic relief to distract would-be pugilists from mixing it up in the boardroom.

In literature, such irrelevancies as parenthetical remarks are revered.

The open and close parentheses are paired to provide an enclosure for a phrase or clarificatory note to support or divert from the main thought in a sentence. The etymology of “parenthesis” gives a clue to its function. In Greek, the original word pertains to “inserting.” Insertions are part of an intimate act as well as a way to introduce pork in the national budget.

In theater, side comments (or “asides”) allow a character to step forward and share his thoughts with the audience. A character expresses his feelings aloud, as the other actors on stage pretend not to hear his comments about them — look how they lie, these bastards. This theatrical convention is called a “stage whisper” to signal that it is intended only for the audience. A conniving Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello recites his evil intent to be taken as a thought balloon as far as the intended victim beside him is concerned.

The asymmetry of perception between the audience and the characters is a form of irony, with the villain smiling even as he cooks up his evil plan. This same invitation of the viewer as participant (the fourth wall) is employed by Alfred Hitchcock in his movies, like Psycho where the audience sees a killer about to plunge a knife on his heedless target seen through a translucent curtain having a shower, just before she is repeatedly stabbed to jarring syncopated music. The next scene is her pooling blood going down the drain.

The grapevine in a company also provides parenthetical remarks. Coffee servers who listen to conversations at the board while setting down cups subsequently give their narrative of what went on before somebody asked for a sachet of Stevia. None of these marginal comments and side remarks are reflected in the minutes of the meeting.

Isn’t small talk before a meeting also a form of side comment?

Just before the discussion on collectibles from a big client, there is chitchat about the stock market run-up and the subsequent correction and how much a known associate lost when the bottom fell. Other topics intrude and set the mood for the main agenda to follow — okay, can we start now?

Side comments distract from the topic at hand. Maybe, that is its true intent. The presenter, especially if he has no prepared slides, tends to digress from his assigned topic on why he did not meet his budget targets for the quarter. He makes irrelevant disclosures on management changes in other companies, then rambles along to what’s happening in the NBA playoffs, before going back to the subject at hand — where were we?

The penchant to change the topic with parenthetical remarks may be a diversionary tactic.

Still, the one presiding over the meeting tries to maintain order when there are too many side comments going on loudly and overwhelming the presentation itself (and now for slide 56) — Wait, can we just have one conversation please? Nobody asks which one should stop.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda