Are You on Middle Class Standard Time?

Have you ever heard meeting leaders say anything like this?

“As you can see, we’re packing a lot in today”

“We’re going to have a working lunch today to make sure we get through everything”

“Wow! We’re going to cover so much ground today – ten really important agenda items in just ninety minutes”

“I know we’re all eager for a break, but I’m going to ask that you hang in there, we’re almost done”

“We’re running a little behind and I appreciate you all helping us move along since we’re trying to pack-in a lot of important material”

If so, you may have some experience being on Middle Class Standard Time (MST). Under MST, all good ideas must fit somehow in any given timeframe. It’s elastic – you need to cover six conversation topics, for example, and they can shrink or expand to fill as much or as little time as you have. It doesn’t matter if you only have three hours in which to fit what should be five hours of material. For that reason MST is also known as Magician Standard Time. Abracadabra! We have all the time we need. (But no, we can’t do fewer things in that time.)

MST often results in rushed, over-packed workshops, conferences and meetings that leave participants little breathing room to digest concepts, to say nothing of social time. People who consciously operate on MST privilege their agenda (written or unwritten) over the wellbeing of the group. I believe most of this can be chocked-up to the influence of professional middle class meeting culture.


Middle Class Values

“Banking” Education: Since middle class culture highly values didactic learning and passive participation, the thinking seems to be, “As long as we’re sitting here, we’re getting something of value”

Hierarchy: As middle class meeting culture is hierarchical, the participants may be overwhelmed or checked-out, but the facilitators often hold themselves accountable to “higher-ups” or previously set goals rather than those present – which would be the democratic thing to do

Workaholism: Because of our high value on working long hours at professional jobs, we middle class US’ers are highly susceptible to work addiction – even in volunteer work – which can show up as “packing in” more than we can physically handle

Formal Relationships: Middle class culture values professional titles and formal work-time, and marginalizes informal relationships, so middle class people often miss the importance of having long breaks and social time

Conflict Avoidance: If we say “yes” to everyone’s ideas, we won’t have to do as much sorting for our priorities, which could result in conflict and hurt feelings. Middle class people generally avoid open conflict

To be clear: You don’t need to be middle class to enforce Middle Class Standard Time, and middle class people don’t always operate on it. Cultural flavors of MST vary by country and region – I’m writing from the US perspective, and in many countries middle class values emphasize informal relationships far more than here, for instance.


Consequences of MST

Enforcing MST can sabotage learning. I was asked to give a 4-hour workshop on strategy on the third day of a 4-day academic conference. I arrived just before lunch, and could clearly see the participants’ long faces through the glass door, in their 3rd hour of Powerpoint-supported lecture. At lunchtime, they were instructed to take 10 minutes to serve themselves from a buffet outside, then to return promptly for their special lunch speaker. Overall they were a highly compliant, academic, middle class-mainstream group, but it took them closer to 20 minutes to take much-needed bathroom breaks, stretch, quickly chat with their neighbors, and finally return. They didn’t mean to disobey the order to come back in 10, but physically couldn’t accomplish the task. Similarly, “since we’re running behind,” they weren’t given a break between the “working lunch” and the next activity, my workshop. But they took one anyway! Slowly the group trickled-in from bathrooms, chatting in the hall, checking their phones. Starting the workshop with a tired, overworked, slightly resentful group would have been a real setup. I gave them a 15-minute break to begin, acknowledging that some of them hadn’t even finished lunch, “and we want you in top shape for our discussion of campaign strategy.” We started with an extended warm-up game I hadn’t planned for. The workshop went well, but despite us using movement-based activities they had less energy than I’d expected, so I dropped several planned activities and gave them more short breaks.

MST can also put relationships at risk. At a recent state policy summit for advocates, immigration activists were given 45 minutes total to listen to five panelists discuss the upcoming legislative session and then participate in a Q&A/audience discussion before being herded to the next session. More than a few felt slighted by that setup, given the complexity of the topic.


Principles for Abundance

Because working class cultures are much more diverse than middle class culture (a result of the middle class value on conformity), there isn’t, in my mind, a Working Class Standard Time – it varies greatly depending on the cultural context. But there are principles that have helped me facilitate from abundance rather than scarcity of time.

Model Working with Abundance instead of adding unneeded urgency or anxiety by referencing a short timeframe, I try to set a tone that communicates the value of pacing ourselves, acting deliberately and maintaining an awareness of the group’s overall quality of participation

Use Check-Ins – “It feels to me like we’re rushing through. My experience is that groups don’t make the best decisions when they’re in a hurry. Let’s take a minute to check-in about that. It’s true that we’ve set ambitious goals for ourselves, but it might not be the end of the world if we need to revise our timeline for reaching them.”

Build-In Long Breaks – all the conferences planned by working class people I’ve been to have included multi-hour lunch breaks or social time. It’s right there in the agenda

Don’t “Stretch” – if you think it might be a little too much in too little time, it probably is – don’t push it

Be Prepared to Narrow Your Goals – if I’m leading a workshop or meeting for a group I’m not familiar with, even if I’ve developed the agenda with people from that group, I assume that they  may need more time than we’ve allotted, and I come with a sense of which items we’ll drop if we get crunched for time


To read more about class cultures, check out Betsy Leondar-Wright’s collection of articles, Are There Class Cultures?

11 comments on “Are You on Middle Class Standard Time?

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  2. Thanks for this great article Andrew. Pretty much every time I work with an organisation as a facilitator there’s some kind of MST pressure. I bet this has got more intense in the last decade or so as corporate pace has sped up and the constant stimulation of smart phones etc has influenced cultural norms.

    Often I need to work with people in the lead up to manage expectations of how much can be achieved. There’s some education to do around what circumstances help people learn best. ‘Less is more’ takes some adjusting to, and as a (middle class) facilitator I notice my own tendency to overfill the agenda. Doing a couple of drafts helps so I can go back and take things out.

    It’s good to notice how well people respond to a more spacious experience. It’s very rare that at the end of a workshop people regret how little they got to do – there is more often a sense that it was a surprising how much was achieved, and how enjoyable it was, compared to the usual hectic but unproductive meetings.

  3. It’s just life in the 21 st Century. Even as a stay at home mom. I plan out my priorities and tasks, but as hard as I go at it all, with brief breaks, there is never enough time. My children in college face the same in their classes, they are taught lessons in a fraction of time that should be given and are expected to learn and be tested on it. It’s not “middle class” anything, maybe it’s an “American” thing.

  4. Those are great points re: corporate culture, smartphones, the influence of technology in general Holly. And thanks for pointing out that people so rarely regret doing only a few things by the end of a workshop! Definitely good for me to keep in mind, too; I can still succumb to the tendency to overfill too.

  5. Thank you for this enlightening article! I am actor, writer, now teaching Communications in a community college in Nebraska, after living in NYC for 22 years. Large Hispanic population, white population less than 50%; I so appreciate the context you placed the fervor for conformity; I have no patience for that mindset, and fortunately, my students share my mentality, so far as I can tell. I am happy to see my suspicions confirmed. It IS a class thing! I’d love to work with you sometime.

  6. I don’t think this is about the middle class. I think it’s about “success” in industrialised economies, which are founded on Newtonian science. Success in these economies means more: more money, more consumption of more stuff, more information making it possible, we believe, to make more money to consume more stuff….. And have more power.

    It neglects the intangibles that make life worth living. That take up time.
    We do need to apply ourselves to achieving a balance, so that we have more enjoyment of life. I’ve noticed that a long lecture or sermon, explaining the important concepts the speaker wants to get across, often leaves me puzzled as to what the point was.

    Less IS more. We are essentially human beings, not human havings, or even human doings.

  7. Wow. Great article. I never knew this existed but reading through the post made it crystal clear that this happens all the time. Now that it has been brought to my attention, I will be on the look out and do what I can to prevent MST. Thanks!

  8. You mention the working class conferences having break times, what about the upper class conferences as a comparison? My experience is that they also have very different agendas and more time for agenda items and personal interaction.

  9. A lot of these points are accurate, but I’m pretty put off by the undertone that working class people have more leisurely concepts of time: after 20 years of working in the service industry, I can assure you that people working around or below the poverty line have their time managed and rushed in a way I have never experienced working in an office.

    • Yes! My son is a banquet server at a hotel that hosts business meetings, conferences, and events such as weddings. Sometimes he gets home at midnight and has to be back there at 5 a.m. Folks at these meetings should take a look at the people serving their early morning coffee service, their lunch, their dinners and their receptions: same people all day long.

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