Monday, October 4, 2010

Knitting in meetings

The New York Times has its own version of Dear Abby, except this advice giver is a young, snarky guy who usually gets close to the right solution but somehow (in my middle-aged opinion) rarely hits 100%.  Last week, somebody wrote in to complain about people on a board who knit during meetings.  "I find this annoyingly rude," the writer whines.

The advice columnist decrees, "I'm told that proficient knitters can purl the night away as well as listen attentively.  But I agree: this behavior is unseemly.  Board members should look as if they're paying attention -- not buying new iPhone apps or knitting Prada-inspired chunky sweaters..."

Well, advice guy, I beg to differ.  I'm not a knitter but I have crocheted hundreds of afghans in my lifetime, many of them during board meetings, and I have found that crocheting makes me a better board member.  It takes only a little mental energy to work on something simple, without stitches to count or patterns to keep track of, but it's just enough to turn down the volume on all the things that make board meetings so deadly.  Somehow when I'm crocheting I'm not bothered by the boring speakers, the dumb tangents, the beating of dead horses, the subjects that should have been taken care of by the committee chair and not brought to the board at all.  It's the non-chemical alternative to a martini or a joint, and best of all, it leaves you unimpaired for the moment when you do want to get engaged in the discussion.

I never crochet when I have to run the meeting, take notes, make a presentation or participate in the debate.  The yarn goes in my lap and I give 100% of my attention to the meeting.  But for the rest of the time, 90% of my attention is plenty.

The advice guy is right that some people can get all offended at the thought that it's possible to knit and think at the same time.  (Generally those people are guys, and perhaps they can't.....)  So I never took handwork to a business meeting, fearing it would be even worse for my career than bursting into tears or carrying Tampax in a transparent plastic bag.  On the other hand, it probably would have been better for my career if I'd had my crocheting with me during a couple of unfortunate marathon meetings with my pointy-haired boss; perhaps I would have been able to sit quietly instead of arguing.

Many years ago the New York Times ran a column by a woman doctor, Perri Klass, who revealed that she took her knitting to any number of meetings in hospitals and medical school, and, like me, found this made her a more attentive participant.   "My mind doesn't wander when I knit," she wrote. "Even before I began medical training, I wasn't very good at listening to other people talk for long periods. My mind easily slips off to make lists, or to plan the menu for next year's Thanksgiving dinner, or, if the hospital atmosphere is not too grisly, to review some well-loved sexual fantasy and spend a few stolen moments happily at play. Over the years, I have written many letters and not a few short stories at lectures and conferences. Knitting occupies that part of my subconscious that otherwise nudges me and points out that I am bored. The two hands tightening and loosening, the catching of the wool again and again, pulling it into the design -- this is somehow the right and proper track for me to run along, leaving me free to listen and hear and think."

Afterwards, dozens of women wrote in to agree. 

In the last decade, since I retired, all my board service has been with art- and fiber-related organizations, so it's no big deal for people of either gender to have handwork at meetings.  I have no idea how behavioral standards in business or civic meetings have changed with the advent of blackberrys, cellphones and laptops, but I suspect there's a fair amount of "unseemly behavior," to quote the advice guy, on the part of men as well as women.  And even in the olden days of primitive communication technology, when you actually had to go out in the hall and make your calls from a pay phone, some people were always unseemly enough to sort through their briefcases, read folders of unrelated papers, doodle, sign letters, doze off or write copious notes that didn't seem to correspond to the discussion at hand. 

At least when I'm crocheting, I can still look you in the eye, read the handouts and follow along with the Powerpoint, which you probably can't do while checking your email. 

Dr. Klass weighs in again:  "What I want to know is, when knitting is such an obviously constructive, useful, warming, sensible thing for a person to be doing while listening to someone else talk, why is the world full of people who take offense? Why are senior doctors happy to pontificate in front of snoring junior colleagues, but frequently taken aback if a couple of listeners are wide awake and making progress on warm woolen garments? Well, I suppose some nonknitters truly don't believe that we're paying attention. But more than that, I suspect, they are annoyed by the coziness of it, the domestic female associations."

I suspect she's right, just as I suspect that the other people at that whiner's board meetings -- including the whiner -- are paying no better attention than the knitter.  As for me, I'm ready for my next meeting.


  1. Isn't it wonderful that such beautiful (and often useful) pieces of art can flow beneath the flying fingers of the knitter or crocheter? In meetings, or anywhere for that matter! I'm with you on the meditative properties of that sort of needlework! I enjoyed reading your post!

  2. I worked the census recently. The training was beyond boring. Several of the younger census employees, despite a warning not to, played with their electronic gadgets occasionally. When it came time to winnow out folks, they were dropped by our staff sergeant of an instructor. The best, most personable and brightest.
    Times change. We all learn in different ways. We all have different attention spans.
    I wonder if I'd had my crocheting with me, how many fewer inappropriate comments I would have made in board rooms and meetings when I'd reached my limit. Perhaps a different life.

  3. I used to take hand quilting to some of my book club meetings- it was not received well to say the least. Now, I am more fidgety in the meetings and can't wait to get back to my quilting whereas I used to really enjoy bookclub since I could manage two of my favorite things at once.