We can’t stop grabbing things these days. We’re grabbing coffee. We’re grabbing lunch. We’re grabbing a quick drink. You’re grabbing me. I’m grabbing you. We’re grabbing each other. (That’s not my elbow.)
The problem with grabbing is that it’s violent, opportunistic and noncommittal. It’s the buckshot of socializing professionally. To be clear: In business, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being violent, opportunistic and noncommittal. These are sometimes virtues. But rarely.
Most of the time what you want to do is have, not grab. Take lunch, for instance. There’s a huge difference between having lunch and grabbing lunch.
Having lunch involves a meaningful proposal to spend a little time with someone, to do something that encourages thoughtfulness and care. Grabbing lunch involves grabbing a table, grabbing some food, grabbing the check and getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible. In grabbing lunch, the grabbing is the point. It’s a box you check off. It undermines the purpose of meeting—which is to have a meaningful interaction with someone. The trick, of course, is knowing when to grab and when to have.
What grabbing gets you
The hardest part of the meeting is setting it up. Whether you’re grabbing or having, you’re still coordinating. And coordinating blows. So there you are: You’ve gone to all the trouble of deciding on a place and time, you’ve arrived, and the only thing you know you’re going to get out of it is a meeting that takes place as quickly as possible. What a weird way to engage in a relationship with someone. What a weird way to participate in an event.
What if we grabbed other important events? Wanna grab a trip up Mount Everest? Let’s grab some surgery on my gallbladder, doctor. How ’bout you and I grab a wedding next year?
These are extremely important events. But so are meetings. Meetings deserve respect, too. Because out of meetings comes greatness (now and again). But not if you grab them. Rarely does something great came out of a grabbed meeting.
We grabbed an interview with Daniel Menaker, author of A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, which is a fine book that everyone who cares about communication should read. You shouldn’t grab it. You should purchase it and spend time with it.
Esquire Guy: All this grabbing, Menaker!
Daniel Menaker: What’s most interesting is that verbal formulation of the word grab. It sounds physical. There’s a kind of food business now called grab-and-go; you snap something up, pay for it (one hopes you pay for it), and off you go. But there’s something actually a little aggressive about it. It makes me want to say, “Let go of my arm.” It’s like they come along with this burlap sack and they’re going to kidnap me.
It also emphasizes the brevity, because “grab” is a very short thing; when you grab something, you do it quickly. So if you say, “I’d like to grab you for a quick cup of coffee,” you’re sort of tripling the promise of a short period of time—one cup of coffee, you’re grabbing and it’s going to be quick. One person is saying to another, “This is going to be a quick exchange; it’s not going to be formal; you don’t need to worry or prepare for it.”
E.G.: Listen, I’m late for a—
D.M.: Sometimes it’s camouflage for something fairly serious. I once had someone say to me, “Can you come downtown for a quick cup of coffee? I need to talk something over with you,” and what he wanted to do was tell me he was terminating my consulting position. I’d have preferred to not have gone downtown for that.
E.G.: Cool. So, uh, this has been great—
D.M.: I think there’s a kind of desire in America for informality that’s really characteristic of our whole culture. You find that not to be the case in Europe and Japan.
E.G.: Daniel, I’m—
D.M.: I think it’s part and parcel of a general culture of forced informality. I think often that kind of disguise is when it turns out it could be fairly serious or at least prolonged. I think there’s a general desire to be a social and conversational culture. Which is impossible to fulfill in a way. That’s where grabbing a cup of coffee comes from.
We all hope things will be easy breezy, so I’m going to use this locution, but in fact it may turn out to be neither easy nor breezy, and it might be prolonged. If someone says that to me, I simply don’t believe them. Partly because of myself. I know I can be verbose. I think we do have this culture of informality that isn’t quite what it would like to be, and we should admit it.
E.G.: Great. Gotta run!
Note: The interview did not go like that at all. It was actually a meaningful and interesting discussion that we’ve edited in a grotesque way to show what actually happens when we “grab.” In our version, one person is grabbing and one person is having. Who would you rather meet with?
The only promise of the grab is speed. It forces a meeting to be hurried and superficial. These are not virtues when it comes to human relationships. These are things you must avoid.
We should try and have more. We should have dinner. We should have a drink or lunch or coffee or a meeting. We should have a conversation. Because the person you’re meeting with deserves it. So do you. And so does your work.
A taxonomy of social engagement
- someone’s attention
- a restroom break
- the bull by the horns
- a hike (literally)
- a hike (metaphorically)
- some time to go over this whole “taking a hike” business
- a drink
- a moment
- a dessert
- this glorious feast we call business
Key technical matters
The best way to grab a coffee with someone is to not grab a coffee with someone. Instead, you should have coffee with them.
Grabbing is a violent, indiscreet act. Meetings should not include violence or indiscretion.
Which sounds better: “Let’s grab lunch” or “Let’s have lunch”? The former is hurried and pushy. The latter is thoughtful and respectful.
A request to grab a meeting implies an apology. It says: I am not all that worthy of your time, and you are not all that worthy of my time. And why don’t we meet as two unworthy people for an absurdly short period of time and get hardly anything done, except for the meeting itself? Sound good?
That’s what the grab gets you. It’s a weak request for a weak conversation made from a position of weakness. Instead: Have lunch! Meet! Talk! Spend some time together! Interface, if you must call it that! But stop grabbing.
Also: Grabbing a coffee could cause severe burns.