Business As A Second Language (Part I) Why is it so difficult to conduct a business conversation? When may I stop listening and start pushing my agenda? And why are we all smiling like this?
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I just got back to my hotel room after the third dinner in a four-day road trip. My face hurts from smiling at stuff that was by no means amusing. My guts are churning from hours spent fighting the urge to bolt from the restaurant and roam in silence in the cool light of the Southern California moon. It's hard to sit and sit when your body wants to obey every reasonable impulse and remove itself from a source of irritation. But I did sit, because that's what I was paid to do. Sitting is my business. Sitting...and talking.

Just because your body rests inert and your face is assembled into all the right planes and gullies doesn't mean your mind has to lie idling on a siding in a haze of vapor. So I had a chance to think. And what I thought was this: In a world where talk is 90% of the action, most of us could use some help conducting a simple business conversation. We blather, we mumble, we honk and bleat. We gibber. We talk when we should be quiet and are quiet when we should be talking. We reach for substance when only an inanity will do. We are inane when the time comes to be meaty. We tell jokes when we should not, for a variety of reasons. We laugh when we should smile. We smile when we should frown thoughtfully. We get down to business too early. We are boring.

I guess having a business conversation must be more difficult than it looks. If we are to get any better at it, we're going to have to break down this enormous activity into its constituent parts and ask some crucial questions.

Where is this conversation taking place? Of all the key determinants, this is perhaps the most important. If you're on a golf course, certain forms of banality are mandatory, and content must be tiptoed on like crust on a winter pond. In an elevator conversations are blessedly short. However, key exchanges are not just possible but incredibly fruitful, not unlike the opportunities provided for men by the common urinal. For women, the couches and mirrors of hotel restrooms provide similar fields of potential glory.

Are we on a train? At a dinner, flanked on the right by a Viking, on the left by a troll the size of a chimp in a $2,500 tuxedo? Who is this person I'm speaking to? What's her rank? What's his title? Is he a peer or a subordinate? A buyer or a seller? I once spent an entire dinner thinking I was speaking with a chairman's wife, feeling shy and at a loss for subject matter, when in fact it was his administrative assistant, whom he treats like a goddess and who might really have done me some good. What a blown opportunity!

How long does a business conversation have to go on? While social or personal conversations usually have to endure for more than six seconds, some business chats are over after one short exchange, like this:

"You did a very nice job on the Crowley matter, Horst."

"Thank you, mein Fuhrer."

At which point, you end it! How much better can we do than that? We can't. We can only get into trouble.

On the other hand, when one is seated at a conference table before a meeting or at a rubber chicken dinner with a person whose good regard must not be forsaken, less may in fact be less. So: What should your face be doing? I'm against fake smiling, although I indulge in it all the time. Beyond binge drinking, it's the business activity that ultimately inflicts the most physical damage. We've got to find something other than smiling to get the job done. But what else is there? There's frowning pensively, if you can pull that off without looking indisposed. There's a bemused mini-grin, which doesn't break all the bones in your face and conveys good will at least. There's blank affability, which, with good eyebrow work, can serve over the course of an entire dinner. But I admit it. This is a tough one that we'll have to work out later. Until something better is found, smiling convincingly and in a variety of manners still rules.

What do I want from this person? I don't know! Think about it! This is your conversation too, not just the other guy's, for God's sake! And don't be too sure you don't want anything, either. I met a little schmendrick several years ago at an industry dinner. What a dweeb, I said to myself. Seemed completely out of it. Nothing to say, no sense of humor. Today he runs his own consulting firm and could do me quite a bit of good, if I had made an impression. Establishing an agenda of some sort is essential, even if that goal is general, like "Get him to remember me fondly" or "Persuade him to give me his cheese plate."

What the hell can I find to talk about until we get down to business? I have no idea. Do you know anything? Do you have any interests that are not boring to other people? Don't answer too quickly.

When do I have to stop talking and listen for a while? When do I have to stop listening and begin talking again? When you can't listen one second longer, I guess, get in there and pursue your agenda. Remember, you established one a few questions back. What was it again?

How far should I push my agenda? Push it, baby! But not too hard. You don't want to be one of those overbearing slobs who have people reeling backward in horror like teenagers from that guy in the Scream mask. Just this evening a guy buttonholed me to talk about a corporation's responsibility to the children in the communities it serves. It's a good topic. I gave it five to seven minutes, and that's a lot. But the guy wouldn't let go. He was on me like a rabbit on a carrot. I am not a carrot! I actually had to utter the forbidden words--"Dick, I have to go talk to somebody else now"--to get rid of him. And he still followed me around for a while, nattering on and on. Then he gave me his card.

Do I want to give this person my card? You might. It's often appropriate. But not always, unless you're Japanese.

When can I get out of here? Well, you can probably...

How can I get out of here? There are a number of ways, if you'd just calm down a minute...

I can't take it any more! Help! Help!

Look, it's quite clear we're going to have to spend some more time on this. I'll see you next issue.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name.