Linguistics

Meeting Observation

Written for an Applied Linguistics Master’s Course: Cross-Cultural Perspectives

 

Part 1: Background and Setting

     The Arena Residents Association Limited (ARAL) is a group of apartment owners who live in The Arena complex. They formed their alliance in 2010 to change the way in which their apartment complex was managed. The meeting took place in the Fisher Hargreaves Proctor (FHP) management agency meeting room. This was a closed meeting that took place with ARAL board members, a small leadership team that represents all ARAL members, and I was allowed to attend as a guest. Before FHP, The Arena apartments were previously managed by a different agency altogether. Whether someone owned the apartment s/he lived in or not, this management agency was responsible for building management and maintenance and meeting the general needs of the residents. However, many residents, particularly those who owned their apartments, were dissatisfied with this previous agency for two main reasons.

     The first reason dealt with UK law pertaining to the differences between ownership of land and ownership of an apartment. A person who owns an apartment does not automatically own the land on which his/her apartment is build. Before ARAL was established, the land that The Arena was built on was owned by the government and, therefore, a management agency was needed to work as an intermediary between the residents and the government to address everyday issues in the complex. The management agency chosen by the local government for The Arena created many complications for residents who wanted to work towards necessary or desired changes for the building. These complications led to the second major issue apartment owners faced within this system. If they wanted any change in the apartment to occur (from repainting the building walls to having repairs made in their homes or around the complex), they had to go through the government-hired management agency. This process had to be followed in three steps of approval that was very complex and sometimes unnecessary. Because of this system, the agency often rejected requests made by the residents from the beginning, wanting to avoid going through the process of approval altogether.

     ARAL’s first goal was to get rid of the management agency by taking ownership of the land on which they lived. They gathered together as many apartment owners as were willing, and the group collectively bought the land on which The Arena apartment complex is built to secure full power over managing the complex. ARAL’s second goal was to find a new management agency that was more efficient and communicative to their requests and general needs for the complex. They hired Fisher Hargreaves Proctor (FHP). Their final, and continuing, goal was to increase the number of members in the group to empower all apartment owners in The Arena to have more control over how the apartment was managed and maintained.

     The current board members present at the observed meeting consisted of seven people. Of these seven, five were male and two were female. The ages of the members ranged from mid-thirties to mid-sixties. All members were middle to upper-class, Caucasian and native to the United Kingdom. There was another guest present, a representative of FHP, who was invited in to discuss items related specifically to managing the building. Issues outside of building management (current finances, banking, etc.) did not include the FHP representative.

     The observed meeting goals were clear and concise for this gathering. The main goal of this particular meeting was for the board members to prepare and finalize information related to the various topics of discussion that would take place at the Annual ARAL Meeting the following month. Within this goal, the board members wanted to clarify, edit and finalize decisions and informational documents to be presented at the meeting in March. The main topics of discussion in this meeting related to financial updates and possible banking options, service charge budgets, statistics on growth/changes, building insurance, upcoming major/minor repair plans, the concierge review and health and safety issues. Overall, the board members wanted to present these issues in the Annual ARAL Meeting in an effort to celebrate their successes from when the group began in 2010 to the present.

Part 2: Consideration of Education, Gender, Sexuality, Race and Ethnicity

     The transition from members arriving to starting the meeting was informal. Some members arrived earlier than others, so general talk and greetings took place as more and more members came into the room. When the majority of the board members had arrived, and when it was confirmed that two members who had not yet arrived would not be attending the meeting this night, they all began to take their seats to begin the meeting. There were no specific places where members had to sit. The only members who made a point to sit in a specific place were the chairperson, who sat at the head of the table, and the person taking the minutes, who sat beside the chairperson. This was done to set the tone for the meeting: the chairperson would be responsible for leading the meeting; the member taking the minutes would be responsible for recording what was discussed and decided upon as well as confirming information recorded with the chair at intervals during the meeting. The main point of this evening’s meeting was to go over the information and related documents for topics that would be discussed at the Annual ARAL Meeting in March where all members would be present. The most interesting interactions observed during the meeting centered on group organization during discussions, group decision-making and group problem-solving.

     During group discussions, the general format began with the chair naming the topic to be discussed and giving the floor to the member presenting the general information for the topic at hand. Each member leading a topic for discussion was specifically appointed by the board member group to gather information and research the given topic for discussion. There was an unspoken understanding amongst the group that the leader for a given discussion topic was the “expert” in that area which was confirmed in the way many decisions were made: in general, board members respected what that member had to say and the decisions s/he suggested on how to move forward based on the information presented. For example, one member was in charge of organizing and sorting out any information related to ARAL’s finances. For one particular topic, he was responsible for researching various insurance companies. The group wanted to switch providers and needed information on different insurance companies, their rates and what the insurance plan covered for the building. He presented his information and felt strongly about which insurance company would be the best for The Arena, but he was also very clear that his opinion was not the final decision for the group. For the most part, the board members seemed to consider his opinion as the best option since he was the “expert” of that topic.

     It is important to note that in this particular meeting many of the topic leaders, or “experts” of the given topic, were male. However, this gender dominance did not detract from the equitable power held by all board members to agree with or challenge what was being discussed. The opportunity for all members of the group to debate and raise questions followed any given topic leader’s presentation. Referring back to the example above, after information was given on various insurance providers and a suggestion to move forward was made by the topic leader, the floor was open for members to ask more questions for further clarification or to debate the proposed decision despite the fact that it seemed that most members wanted to choose the insurance provider suggested by the topic leader. In fact, because the floor was opened for debate and a female board member raised a few issues with the suggested insurance provider, other members eventually did have additional questions about the suggested insurance provider which led to a more thorough discussion of each of the companies presented before a final decision was made.

     The type of interaction and discussion illustrated in the previous example was divided in an equitable way, with no issues of gender or values seeming to interfere with the positive interaction of the group. In Weiler’s (1988) Feminist Analysis of Gender and Schooling, one might infer that the obvious imbalance in gender representation of the board members could be a platform on which inequity could ensue due to prior schooling that reinforced the power of one gender over another. However, taking into consideration the factors of the economic and educational background of this mid- to upper-class group dynamic, there was no real inequity observed in this particular group when gender was considered. Despite the obvious gender imbalance, the group worked together cohesively and fairly. Invitations to voice opinions, concerns and suggestions throughout the meeting were extended in an equitable manner regardless of gender. The female members appeared to be just as empowered and respected within this group. The only other minor issue observed where inequity could occur had to do with age. One board member was clearly much younger than the majority of the group. He is in his mid-thirties while the rest of the board members are in their early to mid-sixties. The youngest board member didn’t seem to speak out his opinion very directly unless it was explicitly asked for by the chairperson or other group members. However, there is room for debate on this observation, as he was a topic leader for one of the discussion points in the meeting, and, following his presentation, he did seem to be more vocal during the meeting, albeit for only a short period of time.

     How decision-making was organized amongst the group was another notable observation. The chairperson organized the order of discussion based on his interpretation of discussion length. The items that needed less time were addressed at the beginning of the meeting, saving the topics that would require more group discussion for last. The chairperson would present the topic to be discussed and open the floor for the topic leader to make his/her presentation. Following this, the floor was then open for all board members to discuss his/her thoughts and ask questions. For issues that the group deemed less important (i.e. reviewing the budget and bank documents), the discussion more or less ended with the topic leader’s presentation. For issues that were considered more important (i.e. switching to a new building insurance provider), the decision-making process was more meticulous. Each board member had the floor to express his/her opinions on the matter, and their time for discussion was not limited, so that they could thoroughly discuss the details of their concerns, arguments and options. After everyone seemed to have given his/her input, the chair would summarize what was discussed, present the decision that needed to be made and explicitly address each board member to confirm whether or not s/he agreed with the proposed final decision. If they were all in agreement, the meeting would move on to the next point. If they were not, the topic would either be discussed again or noted down by the person taking the minutes as something that needed to be discussed and decided upon at a later time.

     Problem-solving ongoing issues was another notable occurrence during this meeting. Again, when differences of opinion would arise within these contexts, the chair allotted equal amounts of time for each board member to share his/her opinion or idea on solving the issue at hand. The best example dealt with the discussion of the concierge’s annual review. This topic was presented by the FHP representative who closely works with ARAL. She presented the items she discussed with the concierge during his annual review, and she shared the action plans set up for the concierge to improve in job responsibilities in which he had the lowest performance ratings. It was obvious from the beginning that there was a clear division in regards to personal opinions of the concierge. Most of the board members took in his performance review and action plans objectively. However, one board member in particular viewed this discussion as a platform to express her personal dislike of the employee. This was a difficult topic to approach as one side of the group looked at the performance review as a way to determine how to improve communication with the concierge to help him succeed at his job whereas the other side of the group looked at the performance review as a way to justify terminating his employment.

     All board members had equitable power in decision-making and since the general consensus was to find ways to improve his performance as opposed to firing him, they decided to move forward with ideas on different tactics to help him improve. One member suggested daily phone calls with the concierge to discuss what happened on any given day in order to positively reinforce communication and to reinforce the daily tasks that he often forgot to perform. Other similar solutions were presented with the same objective: to guide the employee to be more successful at his job rather than to simply fire him. However, the board member who did not personally like the employee was not satisfied with what the group was suggesting, going as far as bringing the topic up repeatedly, even after the group collectively decided to move on to other topics of discussion. Overall, I think everyone dealt with this issue very well. They took time to consider her thoughts, to offer up the same suggestions and to confirm whether or not she agreed with how to move forward. Ultimately, they did reach a decision not to fire the concierge but to help him succeed in low performance areas by increasing direct communication between him, the board members and the FHP representative.

     The observed meeting provided positive examples of how to interact amongst a group in a healthy and equitable manner. Though there was not much diversity in terms of race or education, there was a great amount of diversity in gender and age. Having an imbalance of gender in this group dynamic did not seem to create much inequity as all board members’ opinions were respected and were given many opportunities to be voiced. There did not seem to be much of an “Us versus Them” mentality in regards to gender. In fact, the issue of gender didn’t really seem to come up at all. The issue of age here is not as easy to analyze. There are many factors that could have contributed to the youngest member not participating as vocally as other group members. He had come to the meeting directly from his workplace, so that has to be considered in regards to his not speaking out very frequently during the discussion since personal fatigue could have been a factor in his inactivity during group discussions. He did also seem to gain more confidence to speak out during and following his topic presentation. However, he remained quiet for most of the meeting afterwards. With these factors in mind, it may still be rational to conclude that the age gap played at least a small part in how much one vocalized his/her thoughts and opinions. For example, even when the meeting took more informal turns, as group discussion sometimes went off topic, the youngest board member did not seem to want to engage in the jokes or storytelling. However, there were no significant occurrences of inequity which is a high standard for any group to achieve in a meeting. The way group roles were organized, the way in which the topics were presented and discussed and the general attitudes that the board members had towards one another all contributed to a positive and equitably balanced meeting.

Part 3: Reactions to the Meeting Observation

     Prior to the meeting, I was given a brief description of the group by one of the female board members: though varied in age and gender, they were all Caucasian, mid- to upper-class British natives with higher degrees of education. Considering the purpose of the meeting and member backgrounds, I assumed the meeting would be formal and conducted using Standard English. This assumption was based on my previous experience in meetings with similar demographics and purposes. It seemed that ARAL’s somewhat homogenous grouping would contrast heavily with Delpit’s (1990) linguistically diverse classroom. Surprisingly, some elements of Delpit’s (1990) diverse classroom were observed in the ARAL group: their storytelling when speaking off topic and use of language to express opinions and ideas did in some ways parallel the differences in the discourse styles of African-American and Caucasian-American students (Darder et. al., 2009, p. 328), despite the fact that they all came from similar class and educational backgrounds.

     I was pleasantly surprised to have my preconceived notions about the formality of this group dynamic refuted. Though some topics did call for more decorum, most of the meeting took place in a relaxed manner. This could be due to the experience they shared in creating ARAL. Their struggle for empowerment brought them closer together. They also seemed to have developed close relationships during the course of forming their alliance and establishing the board. They often go out together after meetings, and they make a point to organize regular social gatherings with the entire ARAL group.

     ARAL exemplifies good practices and expectations that foster equity within a group. However, referring back to Weiler’s (1988) work on analyzing gender roles in schooling and how those roles transfer into a capitalistic society, it would be beneficial to attend a meeting with the whole ARAL group present to get a clearer idea of power imbalances that may or may not exist as they relate to the various representations of this group in terms of economic class, educational background and gender.

References:

Delpit, L. (1990). Language diversity and learning. In Darder, A., Baltonado, M. P., & Torres, R. D. (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (pp. 324-337). Routledge: New York.

Weiler, K. (1988). Feminist analysis of gender and schooling. In Darder, A. Baltonado, M. P., & Torres, R. D. (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (pp. 217-239). Routledge: New York.

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