Commentary Magazine


The Study of Man: Hail, Meeters! Greeters, Farewell!

As De Tocqueville pointed out long ago, America is a land of organizations, and therefore of meetings. But, readers of Reuel Denney’s tale will discover, we may be on the verge of a new epoch—one in which all our conferences and conventions, with their impediments and frustrations to democratic discussion and decision, will flower and bear fruit under the benign rule of science. So various research studies and handbooks recently published seem to promise; from now on, whether it’s the executive committee of the Pioneer Social and Athletic Club or the Security Council, we have only to follow this new know-how to attain the same high level of “group dynamics” that has made the professional conferences of social scientists a light to the nations. Mr. Denney here describes one earnest citizen’s education in the new techniques. 

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In every American decade we say goodbye to a landmark or a character we had grown used to. A generation ago we said goodbye to the five-cent stein and the Uncle Tom Negro. Today we seem to be seeing the decline of the Greeter. The Greeter was a man masculine who always came to the Chicago conventions in a back-slapping mood. His literary portrait, by Sinclair Lewis, was completed while he was beginning to become extinct. What ever happened to the Greeters? Many died, some retired, and the rest are becoming Meeters.

Take my old friend George R. Waffletree, now in his fifties. When I saw him recently, after a lapse of years, I realized immediately that he had changed in many ways. He did not slap me on the back or shake my hand roughly, as in the past. This was not chilliness on his part; it was the sign of a general alteration in this once jolly Vice President in Charge of Rebates. I later learned that it was a new kind of warmth, the “group-participative” kind, that he was aiming for.

George was always a good mixer in high school days, and he was a pretty good golfer too. From the beginning of his career in business he rightly guessed that these gifts promised him a good future. He worked hard, he played hard, and he mixed hard, and all these activities were as inextricably blended together as the stuff in his tackle box. His idea of business was to get in there and make money and be friendly to anyone who would play fair. His idea of a good time was to spend his money mostly in the ways his neighbors and the people in the advertisements did. One of the liveliest events of his business year was the industry’s convention in Chicago. Yet this is where his transformation began.

George tells me that he drifted into Chicago on the Zephyr, back in ’47, feeling as good as ever. He had been with his firm long enough to feel quite at home at these big meetings. There were responsibilities, of course. He had to attend some meetings of his own company, including at least one at which some members of his board would be present. These prospects were nothing to fret about; ever since joining the firm, George had followed the lead of Tal Adams, who was a director as well as president. It was all routine. The fun consisted of standing in the lobby and comparing your kid’s college with those of other men’s kids. If any real problems came up, they were solved in small gatherings at the bar, out on Clark Street in a late conference in a honky-tonk, or up in Adams’ room.

Early in the convention, George turned up at a meeting with a few drinks under his belt and slept through it with his eyes open. Toward the end of the meeting there was a vote about something, but George paid no attention to it. He figured that the basic decision had already been made up in Adams’ room. After the meeting, Adams took George by the arm and asked him why he hadn’t said anything, and why he hadn’t voted. George protested that he never bothered to do anything of the kind in meetings on that level and asked Adams if everything was all right? Adams told him that a new expense account system for the salesmen had been voted in. “I thought you had that all cooked up before the meeting,” said George. “Not at all,” said Adams. “That would be autocratic—we discuss things out in the open now. And remember—participate.”

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George was simply paying up for his lack of acquaintance with the work of Kurt Lewin. Lewin, as he learned later, was a German émigré psychologist who came to America in 1932, did much of his work at Iowa State, and was head of the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he died in 1947. Lewin, experimenting with groups of children at Iowa State, had learned that groups with more or less permissive and democratic forms of organization were both happier and more self-sustaining than other kinds. The other kinds of groups he studied were those with autocratic leadship, and those with little leadership at all.1 Lewin, sometimes called the “father of topological psychology,” was especially interested in the idea that people in groups occupied something like magnetic fields in relation to each other. Feelings of attraction and repulsion, dominance and submission, could be charted like physical forces and barriers to forces. In summer sessions in Bethel, Maine, the group dynamists also discovered a number of ways to improve meetings.

George told me rather breathlessly that Lewin’s student Bavelas2 had extended Lewin’s methods in order to study business and other executive groups. One of the things he did was to set up screened desks in two different patterns. In one pattern, call it the “circle” pattern, everybody could communicate with everyone else, while seeing no one. In the other pattern, call it the “line” pattern, each person could communicate only with a person “above” or “below” him, while seeing no one. Bavelas gave the people sitting at the two kinds of screened desks the same kind of a task to dosomething like sorting out order slips. The “line” group, in which the orders came from the “top” and went “down,” got the job done faster; but the individual members didn’t feel so good about the whole thing. “Just cogs,” said George.

The “circle” group, in which everyone had to deal with everyone else until they figured out a scheme to unscramble themselves, got the sorting done very slowly, as you might expect. But they felt pretty good about their work together. The big test came when Bavelas gave the line group and the circle group an entirely new task to solve. This time, the circle group, having established a flexible group identity, swung into the new task very efficiently. The line group bungled around for a long time trapped in its order-taking habits. “Just like me, see?” said George.

This was not all. A month or so before the convention, George had called in Thompson the personnel man and asked him to look around in his magazines to see if he could find any good gimmicks for a sales meeting. Thompson came back with the suggestion that he be allowed to run a little demonstration about “Reality and Salesmanship.” It sounded good to George, and he told him to go ahead.

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Well, after George, as chairman of the meeting, made his speech, “Purchasing Power Isn’t Enough,” Thompson put on his demonstration. He brought in some models from one of the advertising agencies and the idea of the demonstration skit was that these models were receptionists in Hades, and the salesmen were supposed to be trying to get to see the Devil and make a sale to him. In the first skit the receptionist, who was dressed in red flames, got the drop on the salesman. She acted as if to say: “What are you doing here?” The salesman got off into a long explanation of why he was in Hades and not at St. Peter’s—forgetting all the time that the receptionist and the Devil might be proud of their own business locations! Of course, he didn’t get in.

In the second skit, the salesman went out of his way to talk about the weather Down There, and what good night clubs they had. The receptionist agreed and made a date with him. But he didn’t get in to see the Boss, either.

In the third skit, the salesman acted as if it was a matter of course to be selling in Hades, and he took the attitude that if the Boss was good enough for the receptionist to work for, then he was good enough to be sold. He got in.

George may have simplified all this in telling it to me, and I rather suspect that he did. But anyone listening to George would understand why he did so, after hearing the final chapter in this experience of his. As he tells it, he was sitting on the platform after the demonstration thinking that it was all over and done with, when Thompson asked for the privilege of saying another word. George gave Thompson the floor. The first thing that Thompson had to say was that he thought that perhaps George himself might like to play the part of the salesman in a re-enactment of the Hades scene. Thompson genially explained his suggestion by pointing out that this would give George a chance to directly experience the demonstration technique. It would also play down George’s status as Vice President in Charge of Rebates, and make a wonderful climax of participation in the meeting.

George is a pretty fast thinker. The first thing he realized was that nobody was telling him whether the receptionist was going to treat him well or not. In other words, he was really going to have to sell her. George thought fast and remembered a girl in the Pittston Iron Works who looked like the model, and decided to walk through it the way he treated her. He walked over and asked the receptionist how her friend in the navy was doing, and the girl gave him a funny look and smile, and handed him a picture out of a locket. It turned out she did have a correspondent in the navy. They got talking in such a friendly way that the sales audience yelled “Louder,” and from that minute, George’s demonstration of the first step in the sales interview was a success. George says that was just luck.

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Afterwards, he learned that he had been “role-playing.” It seems that an Austrian psychologist, J. L. Moreno, came to this country in the 1920′s with a method he called “psychodrama.”3 The main idea is to ask people who are having emotional difficulties to “act out” their troubles. If they are children, you can have them dramatize the lives and deeds of dolls. They don’t always realize until later that they have been making the dolls act out situations they themselves are worried about. With adults, as in the case of a man who loses all his confidence because he has been given a metal desk instead of a mahogany one, you can apply similar “psychodramatic” methods. George told me that the case of the man with the desk is real, by the way; it is reported in an article in Fortune.4

In a popularization of group methods, George read:

Groups which are used in role-playing come to recognize, almost automatically, those moments when its use is indicated; others learn very soon, by trying it. If a problem, a decision, a situation touches or will touch the feelings and emotions of people, role-playing will provide a better answer than discussion. How can you judge this, however, the first time?

Again we use the core of suggestions worked out by the National Training Laboratory Clinic group.

  1. The scene should reveal or deal with a valid problem in human relations.
  2. The problem should be clear, single, and specific; it should never include related problems.
  3. It should be one the group is capable of acting out; i.e., one in which the players can understand how the characters might feel.
  4. It must mean something not only to the people who are doing the role-playing, but to the people who are watching it. It should, if possible, mean approximately the same thing to all of them. (New Ways to Better Meetings by Bert and Frances Strauss.)

These two experiences, of course, convinced George that something was going on; during the next few days he asked Thompson to tell him a little about the new atmosphere of the convention. Thompson began by explaining that group action in the United States was not all that it could be. Certain students of meetings, for example, had discovered that in a twohour meeting, the active members of the average group participate between thirty and forty times each.5 However, most of them don’t realize that they have; and most of them haven’t participated effectively; and when the meeting is over, many inefficiencies have occurred. The result, they told George, was frustration. Frustration is interference with a goal (Jimmy asks for an ice cream cone, but isn’t given one) and frustration leads to aggression (Jimmy kicks mother) or displacement of aggression (Jimmy kicks little brother). When George protested that much of this came out of Sigmund Freud6 and that he had heard of it before, they said, yes, perhaps some of it did. But they wanted him to hear more about the science of meetings.

After that, George learned all he could about meetings, groups, and group leadership. Thompson told him about Frederick Taylor,7 the efficiency expert who died with a stopwatch in his hand, and how Taylor had invented scientific management. He pointed out the bad old disregard of the employee’s feelings in Taylor’s work, and then reviewed the Western Electric experiments reported by Elton Mayo. His tutor told him the famous story about how they raised the lights in the General Electric wiring room, and got more work out of the girls; then how they lowered the lights in the wiring room—and got more work out of the girls. That impressed George. He was quick to see that this study showed that mere physical working conditions were not the sole factors in morale and productivity. The attitude of management was important, too. The girls worked well despite experimentally decreased illumination because they knew they were an experimental group; and this meant to them that an interest was being taken in them.

George learned a great deal about the new science of human relations in the next few months, and he was soon convinced that the democratic team-work approach could produce much more for his firm than the old-fashioned back-stage maneuvers. He was impressed by the possibility that these new methods might even throw new light on international relations. One of the popularizations remarked that:

. . . listing all possible items of agreement between two belligerents sometimes helps to narrow the conflict. It is not improbable that most Americans and most Russians would subscribe to the following list. . . .

The list itself, besides including public health, conservation, decent living standards, and other items as commonly agreed upon goals in both countries, also noted that:

Both want the narcotic trade controlled.

Both peoples welcome an exchange of nonpolitical art, music, literature, films. . . .

Both enjoy the Olympic games and other international sporting events. The Russians are particularly keen on chess tournaments. . . . (Roads to Agreement by Stuart and Marian Tyler Chase.)

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By this time George had become sufficiently well acquainted with the field to be able to develop a rather impressive after-dinner talk employing the Boston Tea Party as an illustration of certain group principles at work. George usually began his talk by recollecting that he had recently read in a periodical an article entitled “Don’t Let Them Push You Around.” The article emphasized a “how to” approach to the problem of avoiding coercion by parliamentary procedures in a meeting—it didn’t say anything directly about the emotions of meetings. George contrasted with this approach the one he had found in the Strausses’ helpful new digest he had been reading. This digest didn’t concern itself with the rules of order, either in new forms, or in the form they acquired when Roberts, a British engineer, first codified them. In fact, it bowed to Roberts only to suggest that his followers were the fools of order, as out of date as the 1925 edition of Emily Post. It suggested that parliamentary rules scare the voices out of more people than the microphone, and that many a garden club8 has almost perished because of them. It favored the informal approach rather than the formal, parliamentary approach.

To show why he agreed, he went on to argue that the heroes of the Boston Tea Party undoubtedly used the informal approach. As George imagined it, following the general scheme laid down in his favored digest, the heroes of the Tea Party:

(1) Agreed that the average of group judgment is superior to most individual judgment—especially the individual judgment of one George Hanover of Buckingham Palace.

(2) Agreed to agree that a group is more likely to accept good suggestions than to reject them—for example, Revere’s suggestion: “One if by land, two if by sea.”

At the same time, George argued, the meeting at the Boston tavern in which much of the Tea Party was planned must have undertaken a “problem census.” They may even have used a blackboard, if there were any blackboards in the taverns. Their problem census probably went as follows:

(a) What do you think is the reason for this group’s existence? (Shouts: “The Stamp Tax!”)

(b) What do you think the big problems are likely to be? (Shouts: “Finding Indian suits. Slugging first mate on British merchantmen. Getting permission from the wife to stay out all night.”)

(c) How do you think we should go about solving them? (Shouts: “Committees!”)

(d) What difficulties do you think we’ll run into? (General laughter.)

George was especially vivid in his description of the whole American Revolution in terms of the discussion-blocking types of meeters described in his favorite manual. Was the Revolution slowed up for a while by “legalists” who said it was against the law? Of course—by the Tories. Were the colonists fortunate enough to have an “Explorer Type”? Sure, Paul Revere. Did they have to contend with a “Wise-cracking Talker”? Aaron Burr. With a “Fence Sitter”? Benedict Arnold. Then who were the “Expediters”? Madison and Washington. And “Resource Persons”? John Adams and Ben Franklin, no doubt. And so the job that the colonists faced got done. In the events known as the Tea Party, role-playing, too, played its part.

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During the course of these studies, George changed. He lost some of his old color and back-slapping; he learned to participate in meetings; and when he went to meetings, he went to them. The change was not all for the best, for it turned George into a rather quiet and even troubled person who was constantly preoccupied with “mood.” “How is the mood of the meeting?” he was often heard to say.

Meanwhile, some literary friends of George produced some confusion in his mind by arguing that psychodrama had been invented by a Norwegian named Henrik Ibsen, who wrote plays. In one of his works, a lady named Mrs. Alving spends a good deal of her time “playing out” roles with a pastor named Manders. In fact, this is about all that happens in the play, except toward the end, when a lot of things that happened twenty years before turn up again. Most of the people on the stage, especially Mrs. Alving and her friend the minister, affected the audiences of the time as if they were seeing themselves. Then there is another play of Ibsen’s about a bitch that acts out being a bitch—name of Hedda.

Indeed, they even dispute the claims of the Norwegian as an inventor of psychodrama by pointing to the commedia dell’ arte. This Italian form of drama provided merely a set of characters, defined in advance by their traits and costume. The businessman Polcinello, Columbine and Harlequin, and others were the products of this drama,9 which resembled group dynamics in its scriptlessness. Others told George that some of the commedia dell’ arte idea turned up again in the Moscow Art Theater, when Stanislavski used the scriptless “situation” as a method of teaching the histrionic art. George stood back from this revelation for a while and then decided that even if the artistic entertainers had made a contribution, this meant that students of groups knew where to go for good ideas. And if some role-playing experiments in business and club life left things exactly where they were before, so did some dramas he had been subjected to.

Other friends were skeptical and forced him to think over his own experience in these new terms. He wondered whether he had learned as much as he thought he had. For example, if the Tea Party used advanced psychological methods without knowing that it had, would its members have been better off if they had known? Still other friends pointed out to George that these new techniques seemed to be concentrated only in certain kinds of meetings. Many corporations remained uninterested in them—the Brooklyn Dodgers Corporation, for example—and were nevertheless successful. When George thought this over he realized that he had never seen a Norman Rockwell magazine cover of a town meeting with a group-dynamic selectman in it, either.

By this time, however, George was no longer a Greeter. To be a Greeter smacked of unreal warmth, coercion, apathy, lots of other bad things. Above all it was not participative, in the real sense. George had become a Meeter. There was no going back to the old style.

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George’s most recent reflections, however, reveal a certain amount of residual puzzlement. He reminded me a month or two ago that he had gone through the whole 1947 convention watchful for the “private power group” that decided everything. He never found one. Everything was being decided in the open participative meetings. Last year, however, George went to a pre-convention conference with a group of people interested in groups. They had a meeting about the meetings that were to come up later in the day.

“Those fellows, I suddenly realized,” said George, “were deciding a lot of things. Not that they knew it. But they were, for instance, planning a strategy to prevent the bright and talkative salesmen from intimidating the others at the convention; they were going to get participation even if they, in a nice way of course, had to slug somebody, and the role of slugger—not just a role-playing role, either—was assigned in advance. When I said, Let the bright group talk, I was told I was being undemocratic—and if that isn’t a slug-word what is? Most surprising of all, the experts on meetings seemed to be running this meeting, with Adams taking a back seat as if he didn’t quite know how he got there.” Then George leaned over and said, “It occurred to me—don’t get me wrong, please—that what I was in looked very much like a smoke-filled room.”

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Footnotes

1 George read Resolving Social Conflicts, by Kurt Lewin, and Training in Community Relations by Ronald Lippitt.

2 George made the mistake of trying to read Bavelas's “A Mathematical Model for Group Structures,” in Applied Anthropology (1948). He later shifted to simpler works by Bavelas and others.

3 The scary title of Dr. Moreno's main work is Who Shall Survive?

4 “Problem for the Front Office,” May 1951.

5 By now George found that he could drop Applied Anthropology and get some of his material from an excellent popularization of “group science” entitled Roads to Agreement, by Stuart Chase, in collaboration with Marian Tyler Chase.

6 George had been forced by his college-age daughter to read the case of “Little Hans.”

7 George had not heard of Taylor's Scientific Management. He had once sat in on a talk by Efficiency Engineer Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian, and he liked the movie about them called Cheaper by the Dozen.

8 On club parliamenteers, George had forgotten that he had ever read the famous study by group-observer Robert Benchley, in The Treasurer's Report.

9 George somehow or other did not find time to read Der Unterbau des Dramas by K. T. Preuss, in “Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg,” Hamburg.

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