We generally prefer to discuss things we understand rather than things we don't, and that can be a big problem in interviews and meetings.
If I ask you, "What's the best time to take a train in your city?" you would have a clear opinion. You might say, "10 AM, right after rush hour." But, if I asked, "What's the most reliable train manufacturing company?" you might not have much to say. If both questions were asked in a meeting, the bulk of the time would be taken up by the former question, even if it's much more trivial than the latter.
This dynamic was coined the Law of Triviality by C. Northcote Parkinson in 1957. To illustrate his point, he told a fictional story about a committee that needed to approve plans for a nuclear power plant. But, in the meeting, most of the time was spent arguing about what color to paint the bike shed.
This happens, Northcote suggests, because big things may be too hard for many people to grasp so they want to move past them quickly and spend time on the things they understand. They also want to feel valuable and give an opinion. We might not have much to say about nuclear reactors, but we all have something to say about paint color.
The story has led to the term “bikeshedding” to describe this sort of meeting, though it must be noted that "bikeshedding" is not in common usage. Rather, you can say,
- I'm sure we all have an opinion on this, but we're focusing too much on trivial matters.
- We seem to be substituting tough questions for easier ones.
- First things first, let's focus on [main topic].
This focus on triviality rather than substantive issues happens a lot. Here are some examples:
- A speaking test question, "How will the economy be in 10 years?" may quickly be substituted with the more trivial question, "How is the economy now?"
- The question, "How's Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's performance in office?" may turn into "How do I feel about Shinzo Abe right now?"
- After political debates, the commentators on popular news networks can focus on trivial matters like gestures and looking "presidential" rather than the arguments made.
Can you think of any other examples of "bikeshedding"—focusing on trivial questions rather than tougher and more important ones? If you can, and you are a student at The English Farm, then try writing about it for homework or mention this blog post and your ideas to your next teacher.
Finally, don't jump to conclusions in speaking tests like the GBC or in business meetings. When possible, take time to consider big ideas.
trivial [adjective]/ triviality [noun]—not important, especially compared to other immediate things.
to coin [verb]—to invent a word or phrase.
jump to conclusions [idiom, negative]—to assume an answer quickly and possibly incorrectly because you didn't think enough about it.