Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Guilty secrets? 

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... No, sorry, wrong intro...

Once upon a time, not long after the dinosaurs had rolled over and become rodent meat, there was an ancient ritual in offices known as the Tea Break. Come 10:30 in the morning, work would cease as desks were abandoned and the entire workforce made their way to the canteen (remember them?) for a “cuppa”. Note the title – Tea Break. Coffee, in those days, was a flavourless muddy liquid made from a dull brown powder, believed only to be drunk by intellectuals and Americans. (In deference to my transatlantic friends, I’ll refrain from further comment at this point, and simply note the raised eyebrows amongst some of my less enlightened compatriots that the use of words “intellectual” and “American” so close together in the same sentence may cause. It must in any case be said that the Americans had parallel ideas about tea and the English).

It mattered not that, with no caffeine intake before 10:30 am, no actual work would be done until at least 11:00, the time by which the morning’s dose would have taken effect and the workforce made their leisurely way back to their desks. No, the purpose of the first hour and a half of the euphemistically-named “working day” was to review the TV programmes of the night before, express opinions about the latest indiscretions of politicians/sportspersons/celebrities, and generally catch up on the gossip.

Those days are, of course, but a distant folk memory. After all, with today’s work ethic, who could survive until 10:30 without caffeine? And, thank goodness, at least we now have decent coffee available (so maybe we do have something to thank the Americans for). So, to keep their workforces in a state of constant caffeine-induced hyperactivity, canny employers now provide endless supplies of caffeinated beverages on tap. It seems the most effective way of achieving this, short of installing an intravenous drip at each workstation, is to provide a small kitchen area immediately adjacent to the work area. That way, the staff can get their fix with the minimum down-time.

It was in such a kitchen a couple of days ago that I was chatting to a guy I’d not met before. Conversation turned, as it does when you’ve no other common ground to explore, to the work each of us was doing. It turned out he was a consultant, working with some quite senior members of the organisation, and not unnaturally a little reticent about divulging the details of his assignment.

What interested me though was not the secrets he might or might not have been hiding, but the body language he was using.

To begin with, he had been entirely natural, open, friendly – hands by his side, in his pockets, or gesticulating in the classic palm-open indicator of having nothing to hide. Yet as soon as he began to talk, even in the vaguest of terms, about his current project, his hand moved to his mouth as if to hide the words, and stayed there, fidgeting about his lips. Nothing else changed – the voice was as easy-going as ever, the words still fluent and relaxed – just this one give-away. I was so intrigued, an evil streak in me prolonged that line of questioning just to observe his response. All the while, his hand stayed by his mouth, just as though he were trying to mask the words, until someone else happened along and the conversation moved elsewhere.

At this point in the analysis I realise that if I draw the obvious conclusion then I’m in danger of encouraging you to be mistrustful of people who talk with their hand in front of their mouth, which wasn’t my intention at all. For one thing, I’d much rather encourage trust than mistrust, and for another, generalisations are never “true”. Nevertheless, it remains an interesting observation of this particular piece of human behaviour – something I’d heard about before, but not noticed quite so graphically demonstrated.

And if nothing else, it shows that coffee breaks are by far the best time for tapping into the grapevine.

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