It was 11pm, and we’d been at it since 8am.
15 hours of smiling, seminars and swapping notes on all the ‘exciting’ things that our respective businesses were doing.
So over coffee, I asked my dinner companion what he was planning to do at the weekend.
He looked at me quizzically, gave me a perfunctory reply to my question and quickly steered the conversation back to his ‘excitement’ about his work.
He did not, I am fairly sure, consider me rude, just, it would appear, somewhat offbeat; risqué even.
I should have known better. It wasn’t my first time at a business conference in the US, and – with the greatest will in the world – it probably won’t be the last.
The typical successful American probably isn’t, in reality, any more productive than your typical successful Brit, or any other nationality for that matter.
But what is different is the propensity within a certain strand of our cousins across the pond to talk about work; seemingly at every possible opportunity.
This trait is viewed by the rest of the world with a complex, highly nuanced, and – interestingly – perhaps mood-dependent, combination of admiration, exhaustion, envy, pity and genuine bewilderment.
A friend calls it ‘the cloying earnestness of white collar America’. As a very big fan of both the nation and the people, I think he’s being unkind.
But, one way or another, and whatever we want to call it, we’ve all experienced it.
Some of it, no doubt, is a product of history. Whilst the founding of America was, in reality, a terribly plutocratic affair, the myth of America has always focused on the merits of hard work, and the results that it can bring; ‘the dream’.
Contrast this with the old world’s sniffy, aristocratic disdain for something so terribly vulgar – a well-practised insouciance that has long been aped, ironically, by Europe’s mercantile classes.
Moreover, America is, and always has been, a verbal culture (texting, for example, took a lot longer to take off in the US as compared to Europe, in part at least because everyone had grown up with plentiful low-cost phone calls).
All immigrants, particularly economic ones, learn to speak a language before they write it, and so a nation founded on immigration is going to find speech a more effective means of communication than the written word.
And when work, or at least the search for it, is one of the few common denominators, it’s natural that it will tend to dominate conversation.
It’s also about the nature of the ‘state’. If you’re not talking about work, then what are you talking about? And – more to the point – who is paying for you to do that?
The absence of a well-established welfare state, it is arguable, generates a cultural norm around needing to show people that one is taking care of oneself and one’s family.
And, as usual stateside, there’s probably a religious angle too. America is infused with a deep sense of godliness, and – particularly for the protestant masses – hard work doesn’t rank far behind cleanliness, proximity-wise.
There are no doubt countless other reasons too. But, whatever the causes of the American tendency to ‘talk work’, does it matter?
I think it does.
We live in an age where corporations in the developed world need to fundamentally reinvent themselves.
That level of change is unlikely to come from the standardised methodologies of the business schools.
It requires genuinely fresh thinking and innovation: above all else, it requires creativity – in the truest, broadest sense of the word.
Creativity, like success, has many parents. But one of them is certainly time and space; the ability to think, deeply, laterally and sometimes counter-intuitively.
We have long known this instinctively. The human being is physically and psychologically wired not for the tedium of 8-8 (or midnight in the case of my dinner companion), 5 (or more) days a week, 50 weeks a year, but instead for intense periods of very hard work followed by downtime.
During our cave-dwelling period, we didn’t just work – or talk about work – relentlessly. We worked when we needed to (running after, catching and then killing the animal) and then actively enjoyed our downtime.
We might have reflected on some of the challenges we faced – and come up with the wheel.
We might have decided to document our hunt – and painted the walls of our caves.
Equally, during our very long agrarian period, we worked hard during the spring and the harvest and then outside of those times – deliberately or otherwise – we afforded ourselves the time to think.
It was really only the Industrial Revolution that ended this, taking a timetabled, mechanistic approach to human resource much as it had done everything else.
This might have been acceptable when creativity in the workplace was – erroneously – seen as a luxury, but it certainly isn’t today when it is a matter of survival.
Interestingly, science – and also the pseudo-scientific zeitgeist, has begun to reach the same conclusion. In his 2007 Harvard Business Review paper, ‘Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time’, Tony Schwartz wrote about the importance of replenishing what he termed the four main ‘wellsprings’ of energy: the body, emotions, mind and spirit.
He is clear that this replenishment simply cannot come from endlessly talking about, and therefore thinking about, the transactional flotsam and jetsam of everyday work.
Instead, we have to carve out time for ourselves; deliberately making the time that we previously enjoyed to reflect in a non-pressured way. To think, to create.
This is not about working less hard. Hard work is the common denominator of all successful people.
Indeed, the readiness to work hard is one of the many things that I love about America and its people.
They are, and their country is, generous, warm and uplifting. America, and its corporations, have an incredible track record of constant reinvention.
It’s just that, in order to keep doing so, they might be well-advised – counter-intuitively – to think, and talk, about work a little less.