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Tea Chapter Conversations

First pubslihed July 10 2002

- by Maish Nichani

The first cup caresses my dry lips and throat,
The second shatters the walls of my lonely sadness,
The third searches the dry brook of my soul to find the stories of five thousand scrolls.
With the fourth the paint of past injustice vanishes through my pores.
The fifth purifies my flesh and bone.
With the sixth I am in touch with the immortals.
The seventh gives such pleasure I can hardly bear.
The fresh wind blows through my wings
As I make my way to immortality.

-- Lu Tong, Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907)

entranceThe above is one of the many wise sayings about tea. This particular one makes me reflect on the many hours I have spent at the Tea Chapter, the largest tea house in Singapore. I usually visit the tea house when I feel the need to get away from the maddening crowd (and work) and enjoy some quality time with family and friends. I had little reason to believe that others might have different reasons for visiting it.

On several occasions though, when not concentrating on the procedures of making fine Chinese tea, I noticed there were many businessmen in suits, sitting cross-legged and deeply involved in an intense conversation. I thought them to be lucky employees who could take time off work and chill out at this place to gossip and have some tea, in that order. But now, instead of envying them, I admire them, as I have come to realize that these are people who have learnt the secret to effective knowledge sharingÑhaving meaningful conversations.

In this article I am not going to stress the benefits of such informal talk for knowledge intensive businesses, Don Cohen and Larry Prusak have made a wonderful case of this in their book titled In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work, rather I will attempt to highlight some issues that I have observed at the Tea Chapter that inspires some of us to "search the dry brook of our souls to find the stories of five thousand scrolls."

Knowledge resides in one's head, and not in documents, which contain only information. An effective way to share or transfer knowledge is to interact with another person on a face-to-face level. Keith Devlin in his book InfoSense calls this process knomosis --"a process by which knowledge is transferred when two people interact with each other over a period of time, or when one person observes another performing a task many times." The environment under which these conversations occur not only provide the context for these conversations to happen, but also plays an important part in inducing them. Let's take a look at some issues of the Tea Chapter that make it such a conversation-friendly place.

Designed for conversation

low seating

When you first enter the Tea Chapter, you are welcomed by its serenity, much like when entering a library. But unlike the library environment, where you get warned for conversing, the Tea Chapter environment encourages you to talk, in soft-tones that is.

Tea houses like the Tea Chapter are usually shop-houses. These rectangular-shaped compact houses are characterized by low ceilings and small square windows barely a foot from the wooden flooring. The floor space is divided by low tables capable of seating 4-6 people. The distance between the tables is such that groups can have both private conversations as well as be a part of the public space. This implied private-public split makes one feel kinda cozy; kinda secure; kinda like some of Ray Oldenberg's third places.

Time to unwind

A notice printed on the Tea Chapter menu informs its patrons that there is a "Time Limit of 2 hours (during peak hours)." The reason being that many groups sit around for more than 2 hours. In fact, the marketing manager of the Tea Chapter informed me that it is not unusual to find groups sitting around for as much as 4 hours during weekdays. This mental acceptance of long discussion period ahead plays a psychological role in predisposing one to wind down, collect thoughts, and explore different perspectives.

workingActivity oriented

A characteristic of the Chinese tea making process is that it is elaborate and active. It is not just about adding hot water over a tea sachet, rather is a sequence of delicate steps, each contributing to the final experience. Usually each person in the group brews a cup of tea for others. Again, psychologically this makes you feel part of a team, knowing you are participating in the experience.

All these factors play an important role in inspiring meaningful conversations. And not surprisingly, these are also some of the factors that are responsible for a perfect brainstorm that Tom Kelly, CEO of Ideo, writes about in his book, The Art of Innovation.

The influence of tea

Then there's the influence of tea itself. Many have touted the calming effects of tea. Apart from its other health-enhancing properties, a hot cup of tea is said to soothe the nerves and relax the mind. Just the right predisposition one would like when brainstorming or debriefing.


Many have written on the benefits of engineering "functional inefficiencies" into office designs, for example, putting printers in far flung isolated rooms just to make employees walk past other departments so as to increase the chances of a serendipitous encounter with other employees from different departments, in the hope that the encounter might spark new ideas. Tea houses are a little different in this regard. In these terms, they are not designed for serendipitous encounters, rather they are inclined towards brainstorming, debriefing, and decision making.

In an age where office workers are dubbed as being SAD (Stuck At Desk), social spaces from tea houses to cafeterias and from water coolers to smoking rooms can not only provide a welcome reprieve from the desk but can also act as a catalyst in starting conversations. (Think knowledge sharing).

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