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Creating Community in the Cafeteria

A recent Harvard Business Review article here found that, “Firefighters who eat together do their jobs better than those who don’t.” The researchers found a significant positive correlation between eating together and team performance. Cooperative behavior was about twice as high among team members who ate with one another than among those who didn’t.

Vels_Bakery_FellowsIn agreeing with the observations in this post, it is worth adding that the corollary to this activity of communal eating is communal conversation. It is in conversation that we manifest the real depth and potency of being together, nurturing social capital. The power of shared conversation is evident in this extract from Jon Gertner’s comprehensive review of Bell Labs in his book The Idea Factory in which he says:

“Some lawyers in the patent department at Bell Labs decided to study whether there was an organizing principle that could explain why certain individuals at the Labs were more productive than others. They discerned only one common thread: Workers with the most patents often shared lunch or breakfast with a Bell Labs electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist. It wasn’t the case that Nyquist gave them specific ideas. Rather, as one scientist recalled, “he drew people out, got them thinking.” More than anything, Nyquist asked good questions.”

Moreover, as the Harvard Business Review article suggests, there needs to be diligence to ensure that communal eating doesn’t create such deep bonding social capital that it inhibits bridging social capital. In other words, communal activity that becomes a clique instead of inclusive and welcoming to others. In that regard, again, attention to the practice of authentic conversation can allow for healthy bonding and bridging social capital to arise.

Version 3In some ways, I encountered this spirit in action during my project, a couple of 830 mile long conversations. Entering a cafe or diner, I would ask to join a small group of regulars. Universally welcomed, I found people willing to engage in broad ranging conversations marked by familiarity, support, camaraderie yet also capacity for disagreement. In particular, my own views, which were sometimes at odds with those at the table, were accorded a respectful hearing.

For this festive season and 2016, how might you find ways to embrace communal eating and conversational engagement in your work and social places?

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