When you’re all in a meeting and you’re listening to a speech, or a lecture, or you’re discussing the last item on the agenda; when you finish that meeting and the formal time is concluded; when the speaker has just wrapped up; when a momentary silence of contemplation or processing has fallen; when that contemplative moment is over, and the hush of an audience or congregation or class or committee is broken by the tension-relieving murmur of individuals here and there; when the subject matter of the meeting is briefly acknowledged in the first comments of the newly-released; and when that murmur cascades, pauses and surges into an all-out chatter; there is almost always -it is as nearly perfectly followed as a statute of law is by an unhungry populace- an immediate and abrupt complete change of topic in the conversations bursting and flowering about the room.

I’ve observed this in numerous settings and contexts and found globally that straight after a meeting there is a common will to speak about anything, or almost anything except for the matter which has just been presented to the group, even if that presentation was delivered admirably and eloquently.

There arises in the meeting-attendee a near irrepressible urge to switch their mind into a completely different mode. The matter of the meeting is discarded; any small or amusing alternative is seized upon for mental mastication.

I have often wondered about this immediate change of topic, which occurs even after, actually especially after, a meeting discussing matters of great importance and of great personal passion to the persons involved.

I wondered if it meant those class or committee members weren’t that interested, after all, in what was being said a few seconds before- if I wasn’t that interested?

I wondered if it meant their true enjoyments came from the bandying-about of the trivial or tangential, from the prospect of a coffee refill or a slice of cake, rather than the more serious issue that we had all, moments before, been apparently engrossed in?

Certainly the fidgeting, clock-watching and foot-tapping in evidence in all but the most enrapturing of meetings would seem to support this hypothesis.

So I set out to modify my habits.

Out of concern lest I be considered uninterested in the matters I had been meeting to discuss; out of a desire to remain engaged post-meeting in the dialogue of which the sermon was but a foretaste; out of a willingness to lead my peers in analysing and progressing beyond the thoughts and issues raised between us, I determined to catalyse promptly upon the finish of the meeting an evaluation of the speaker’s words and to add insights of my own to their treatment of the subject, hoping for a reciprocation from those sat beside me.

In all but a few cases, this succeeded rather less well than I expected. People (including, I found, myself) found it infinitely preferable to set aside the billed subject and pursue another altogether more down-to-earth one, such as yesterday afternoon’s football match or the latest rise in the price of fuel.

My tentative theory had been that unless people forged a conversational continuum between in-meeting and post-meeting, they revealed a lack of honest interest in the content of the former. And yet, I now reasoned to myself, they kept coming back. People voluntarily came to these sessions, or arranged their lives so that sitting in meetings was an unavoidable duty of their employment.

If the topic at hand was of such desperate dreariness that an immediate discussion of the morning’s difficulty in finding a car parking space was the preferred antidote to the somnambulism of its treatment, then I concluded that the average person would never have turned up at all.

No, the average person exhibiting this post-meeting topic-change phenomenon must indeed be mentally stimulated by the content of the meeting. So how to explain this seeming behavioural tic of leaping immediately into an unrelated topic at the first moment of conversational freedom like desperate men jumping from the windows of a burning building?

I hit upon the notion that this switch into a completely different mode of thinking that occurs must enable the person’s brain to process the information they have just been subject to receiving. This processing is occurring on a subconscious level, whilst the person preoccupies their conscious mind with idle chatter.

The aim of the post-meeting small talk then is not to escape the meeting, but quite the opposite, to embrace it. By shooting off on some insignificant tangent, they were permitting their subconscious mind to catalogue and reflect on everything that had gone before, and so process it all the more thoroughly before returning to contemplate, as a horse or other ruminant swallows grass to partially digest before its later regurgitation and chewing of the cud.

So concluding, I justified to myself the phenomenon that had by turns baffled, concerned, plagued and finally re-seduced me. I saw in a new light its useful purpose. I grew to feel at peace at closing a solemn seminar and launching into a lively commentary on any inane line of conversation that would whisk my conscious mind away and permit my subconscious to invisibly file/save that which it truly wanted to retain.

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Yeah. So…hey, who watched X-Factor last night?

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