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.
During the meeting
Meetings are a form of catharsis. A meeting is a stage set out so that actors within a hierarchy can dramatise topics of relevance. It does not matter if these topics are on the agenda or not, or if the issues raised in the pre-meeting are ever brought up. The discussion that happens during the meeting is highly regulated by the enforced hierarchy and the role each person plays within it. For example, during a meeting the support staff, the students and the newer members of a team may say very little if anything at all. Some meetings are dominated by an imperial presence, whose very participation prevents people who are ‘lower’ in the hierarchy from contributing. They will get a chance to express themselves in the smaller private meetings in the aftermath (see below).
The senior members of staff will often sit together in the same vicinity. In a seminar-type setting, they will be at the front with their backs to the rest of the room, facing the speaker.
It is normal for people to have mini splinter-meetings between themselves at the same time as the ‘official’ meeting is happening. The main speaker is expected to plough-on regardless. It is not considered rude for people to talk among themselves in this way, though this phenomenon is very culturally variable, and would be considered unacceptable in the UK context.
Whether in France, or the UK, all over the world the same problems arise:
-The PIN doesn’t work. I can’t connect.
-Who said that?
-What did they say?
-Heavy breathing obfuscates the discussion…
…I guess I’ll just send out an email after the meeting.
Meetings will rarely start on time, and often no end will be officially set – so they are potentially infinite. Where I work in Toulouse meetings usually start 15 min late. This is called ‘le quart d’heure Toulousain’.
Whoever opens the discussion during a meeting, or starts the presentations during a seminar session, will have the upper hand with the timing. They will be given more leeway to talk for longer than their allotted time versus anyone who comes after. The unofficial or official ‘chair’ will feel uncomfortable cutting them off if the pair are peers. If the speaker is a student, however, they will be hurried along. Any subsequent speakers will be asked to be punctual, but they will also be allowed to talk over time. The chair may also raise points and not censor their own speaking time.
The meeting will invariably go on for longer than initially planned, sometimes by several hours. People will have to apologise and leave in a hurry to pick up their children still stranded at school, or to attend their night class.
In the rare instance where a meeting, for some reason, followed an agenda and ended on time, two things can happen: a) the meeting is suddenly extended, with new issues raised, and so goes over time anyway or b) people are impressed and delighted that the chair has managed things so well. They may even applaud on their way out (but this only happens if the chair is male).
An important phase of academic meetings occurs when the meeting has, in fact, ended. People will stand around and discuss the meeting, or gather in an office. Heated topics will be rehashed in small groups determined by the hierarchy. This phase may last several days, and is when the success or failure of the academic meeting is decided (which is irrelevant to its stated aims).
Based on my experiences the raison-d’être of meetings in France versus the UK are worlds apart. In France, the meeting is about playing out roles via a discussion regulated by a hierarchy. The direction taken by the discussion may be unexpected or unplanned, but it is usually allowed to play-out regardless. This can often lead to fruitless meetings, confrontations or unexpectedly satisfying and inspiring discussions. In the UK, meetings are about fulfilling an objective or taking a decision. Any deviation from that goal is considered time-wasting and a failure.
The way meetings proceed, what purpose they actually serve (versus the announced purpose), and the inter-person dynamics during meetings, are highly culturally driven, both in terms of the country in which they take place and the particular academic culture they derive from, which is both institutional and/ or disciplinary in nature.