Verbal Energy

All dressed up but no one to 'meet' with?

In an age of webinars and other online encounters, being able to press actual flesh still matters – and so it's important how we describe our 'meetings.'

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This column started in some retronymic musings about "meetings." It's morphed into some thoughts on integrity in communication.

These thoughts were prompted by two minor episodes in my world. One was an e-mail list exchange about whether it was fair to describe a telephone conference call as a "meeting." With so many people working "virtually" nowadays, isn't it assumed that a "meeting" is probably on the phone or online, rather than in person?

And if so, does that mean we're in for another retronym – "A word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development, as acoustic guitar in contrast to electric guitar or analog watch in contrast to digital watch," to quote from the American Heritage Dictionary. Will we have to talk about "face-to-face meetings" or "meetings in person"?

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Maybe we will, and maybe that's OK. If four or five members of a "creative team," toiling away in four or five different suburbs, choose to call their regular Monday phone conference a "meeting," who can object?

But I rethought this after the second episode. This involved an actual meeting (in person, for the record) at which a marketing consultant encouraged her listeners – small-business owners and consultants – to think about the channels through which they reach their "target audiences" – e-mail, telephone, newsletter, word-of-mouth recommendation, and so on. She labeled all of these as "indirect." The only connection she described as "direct" was in person.

Another consultant who toils in an adjacent vineyard reinforced the point. She chimed in that she encourages her clients to think in terms of their "flesh networks," the people they've actually met in person, and their "digital networks," those they know only through electronic communication. It's an intentionally provocative pair of terms, but, as she noted, people tend to remember them.

In an age of webinars, online learning, videoconferences, and even HD television, we may lose track of the fact that we aren't really there. When people sign up for the "GoToMeeting" service, does the memory of an old-fashioned expression, "Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes" come to mind?

Not long ago, I was in a conversation with someone about the cultural resources available in Boston. I told of attending a public presentation involving several prominent figures who had played key roles in a particular historic episode of a few decades back.

Yes, my interlocutor responded, I've seen them on "The History Channel," or wherever. It soon dawned on me that she just wasn't getting the "in person" part. She may have been so used to seeing things on a screen that she had lost sight of the fact that there are still places where you can go and see and hear thinkers, leaders, and other public figures up close and personal.

But meeting still packs some punch to describe a face-to-face encounter, especially when one person has something the other wants – a job to offer, money to lend, information to impart.

And this is where integrity comes in, especially in a communication going to a larger audience. It's OK to use meeting as an informal shorthand among those who know. But if your readers or listeners knew the fuller story, would they accept the abbreviated version that appears in your account?

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