This is my cross-cultural take on academic meetings based on years of participant observation. The cultural differences in the nature and purpose of academic meetings in France versus the UK are often a source of puzzlement and frustration for visitors in both settings. I describe here a generic form of academic meeting typically experienced in the French academic world. Obviously a number of different types exist.
The purpose of the meeting will be discussed between relevant actors (determined by formal/ informal hierarchy) beforehand, in one-to-one conversations, or perhaps in a small group setting. This is a sort of lobbying phase where the desired outcomes of the meeting are pleaded for, and allegiances are sought. At this point many of the meeting related decisions are actually made.
The meeting will only start when ‘relevant’ people have arrived. These are the hierarchically senior people – even if their presence is irrelevant to the purpose of the meeting. The meeting will be delayed until they show up, or until it is discovered that they are not coming.
Conferences are special. More often than not in France they are opened by a minor political figure, like a mayor or a senior administrator of an institute or university. These people will be late, and will usually give a generic speech that is off-topic. All the subsequent scientific speakers, often pre-selected by peer review, have to make-up the lost time.
Meeting chairs are not usually predetermined, except for at conferences. If no one has been appointed as chair, some assertive person present from the senior staff will lead the meeting. Often, they will not know what the timing of the meeting or seminar is, and how much time to give to the speaker or to the discussion.
This is an essential feature of academic meetings, often found in thermos flasks that have been sitting on a table for an undetermined amount of time. The coffee usually tastes of brown crayon (to quote David Foster Wallace). If you’re in luck there might be an expresso machine available for a more aromatic experience.