One of the terrors of the modern office job is the meeting, wherein everyone in a particular business unit of a company converges to sit around a sad, grey conference table to recite terms like report and action item and iteration and suboptimal at each other in the hope that these will conjure, magically, a pile of money and happiness. Sadly, most of the time, these incantations do not summon wealth; most of the time, they instead summon responsibility. You walk in with some of it, and you walk out with more.
This poses a particular challenge to the sad, basic-ass office drone: you. Because, what even is your job? Who knows? Who can know? Some combination of the words business and administration and systems and analyst and engineer and project; when Uncle Lou pulls you in for a beery shoulder-hug at the Thanksgiving shindig and asks just what it is you're doing for a living these days, you shrug and pull an apologetic face and go, "Computers, I guess?" This makes the meeting especially challenging to you: Because your job could be anything, God only knows what new, incomprehensibly abstract job responsibility—reporting on the user-acceptance testing of the new typeface for second drafts of business-requirement-meeting notes —will follow you from the meeting back to your dismal cubicle.
("I talk myself out of suicide, Uncle Lou. That is my job.")
So how do you avoid this? How do you survive the meeting, and emerge from it with no new, hopelessly esoteric busywork to feel bad about? Here are some tips:
1. Volunteer to "record meeting minutes."
This is a dumb, useless thing to do that usually is work-like enough to get you off the hook for having to do anything else. Basically it means writing down, with somewhat greater precision than everyone else, what happens in the meeting: who's there, who says what, what time the meeting started and ended, what new tasks were assigned and to whom. Jot down the names of the participants as they arrive. When a person takes a turn to speak, jot down their initials and the gist of what they say. Ignore jokes and asides. When someone comes up with a Thing That Must Be Done and assigns it to someone, put a star next to that in your notes so that you'll remember to list it at the end as an "action item."
The nice thing about recording meeting minutes is that you're so focused on writing down what's said and by whom that, perversely, no one expects you to be paying attention. This will get you through the meeting pretty much unscathed, since, unlike everyone else, you're doing actual work, as opposed to slinging jargon-y horseshit around like an asshole.
After the meeting is over, type this stuff up in a decent-looking document, email it to the participants, and you're done. The rest of them inherited new jobs at the meeting; you completed yours. Nice.
2. Bring a drink.
Coffee, water, something. This will create a plausible reason for you to duck out, politely and quietly, at some point, to go sob into your hands in the restroom, look at pictures of your loved ones on your smartphone, and tell yourself that you are doing this for a reason.
3. Say absolutely nothing.
Many young whipper-snappers, new to the workforce and not yet disabused of their dumb notions of ambition and getting ahead and earning their pay, think that it is a good idea to try to ask at least one sharp, perceptive, intelligent question per meeting. Surely the boss will notice my keen perception and finely tuned critical-thinking skills, and reward them! That is a bad idea. Why do that? Why remind anyone that you are there? If they know you are there, they will give you things to do, and then you will have to say things at the next meeting about whether or not you handled your "action items."
No. Say nothing. If you were crafty enough to snag the "recording meeting minutes" role, zone in on your note-taking with the zeal and focus of an archaeologist on a dig. If you did not manage this, then you must sit rod-straight in your seat, remain perfectly silent, and appear to be listening raptly to your coworkers who are foolish enough to speak. Occasionally, make a face of neutral concentration and jot something down on your notepad. Oh shit, they will think—maybe that person is on to my bullshit. Better not let that wised-up critical-thinker talk at all. That is just what you want them to think.
4. If you must talk, do it carefully.
Sometimes talking in a meeting is unavoidable. Maybe someone with real responsibility is out sick; maybe you got stuck with some "action items" in the last pointless meeting; maybe some random fluctuation in the essentially chaotic currents of the universe caused your bullshit "job" to coalesce into an actual set of work tasks last week, and everyone will want to know what that is like.
Keep it brief; speak in a clear but flat monotone; do not throw in a joke. If you can pull it off (if there were no hard deadlines to hit between the last meeting and this one), describe your progress in terms that suggest that you are making good, unimpeded progress, but also that you are not finished yet. This is a good way of pleasing the boss with your competence, but also making clear that your slate of work responsibilities does not have room at the moment for the addition of new ones.
5. For God's sake, whatever you do, do not complain.
Many sad office drones, rightly seeking to avoid responsibility for the impenetrably vague and criminally useless work products of our time, make the mistake of blaming their lack of action-item-progress on the incompetence or stubbornness or opposition of "the client" or "the subcontractors" or "some other random person who is not at this meeting."
The problem with this approach is not that it will cause people to think that you are a Negative Nancy, but that it leads to the creation of action items. A sharp-eyed boss, similarly seeking the easiest and most meaningless ways to appear to be doing work, will seize upon your gripes as an opportunity to Get Things Done, by placing a phone call to the offender and smoothing things over. And now what? Now people know you exist. Now there may even be dispute over whether your complaint was justified, or whether you breached office politics by voicing it, or whether the person you complained about actually exists. Now the boss can fix your problem, and expect your action-item-progress to accelerate.
Do not complain. Ever. Especially not in a meeting, where the boss can make a show of bossliness.
6. If lunch is provided, eat moderately.
Again, avoid drawing attention to yourself at all costs. If anyone notices that you grabbed like 42 of the sad turkey-wraps or whatever-the-hell, this will germinate in their minds an unconscious desire to ensure that you are doing work commensurate with your lunch intake.
7. Remember that someday you, too, shall die.
And then the time of meetings will be at an end. Oh, what a blissful day that will be.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.