Friendly questions for your con conversations

As we started to arrange for our convention memberships for the summer, one of my friends asked me about striking up conversations with strangers at conventions. What sorts of friendly questions can make this easier? friend wanted to know. Do you have a post somewhere? she wanted to know. Please note: this is not meant to dictate conversation for anybody! If you feel comfortable with what you’ve got, by all means, sally forth! But this was a requested post from someone who wanted some ideas, so if that’s also you, here we are.

So. Let’s start with the basic three, that work for people you are just meeting, and they (mostly) work for people you’ve known for twenty years, because you can answer them in any level of depth and detail:
Early con: How was your travel? Alternate: How has it been living here/what do you like about it here?
Middle of the con: Been to any good programming? (This continues through the end but you can segue to:)
Late con: So when are you heading out? How has your con been?

The convention is the basic thing you have in common. If you start with that first, you’re less likely to frustrate people with questions like, “Have you finished a novel?” that have SO MANY ways to go wrong if you don’t have background on the person. So:

Is this your first time at this con?
How did you find out about this con?
Do you go to others? What do you like about them/this one?

Depending on what con it is, the theme may give you clues for a place to start. Is there a specific theme for this year, and do you have a comment on that, one on which you can base questions to appeal to other people’s thoughts? Any comparisons to last year’s theme? Does this convention have the kind of focus where you can ask “what’s your favorite [category thing] lately?” Lately is a pretty broad term–keeping it at “lately” instead of “this month” or even “this year” means that you’re not putting people on the spot who love the focus of the convention but might feel a little overwhelmed about whether they love it exactly as informedly as the most intensely informed person in the room. “Hello, how is your imposter syndrome” is not the question we want, although sometimes it’s unavoidable.

So…sometimes “what was formative for you” or “do you remember an early favorite” can be a good icebreaker question with a new person, because while a lot of people are filled with anxiety about whether they’ve caught up on the latest and greatest, or on enough total from the checklist, what is some of your personal heart, what brought you in and feels best, is something that almost anybody can answer. And can often answer in a way that sparks more conversation, that is not just a single word answer…unless they’re petrified and literally any question is going to bring single word answers.

I don’t know, there’s a bit of a centipede problem here, because I’m trying to help my friend do something that I’ve learned to do fairly naturally. I think what I’m trying to do is give examples of approaches–think about what we already know we have in common from being at the conference, how we can find interesting points of difference and commonality to spark conversation…without making too many assumptions, without leaning on areas I’ve learned are sensitive for several people. When you’re in the audience waiting for a panel or just coming out of it, hopes and fears for the panel and/or things you liked best! Places you’ve had a good meal around the con and what was nice there! Little stories about This One Time At World Fantasy that will make people laugh and say, “oh nooooo” and set them at their ease!

There’s no perfect icebreaker question. But I think it’s important to remember that there isn’t. That a lot of times if you’re at a convention, a place to converse about a topic of mutual interest, and you turn to a stranger and make a reasonable attempt to converse on the topic at hand…sometimes there’s nothing you could have done. And if they appear to be cold and distant, maybe they’re dealing with their own stuff, maybe they’ve just had a major shock of some sort, maybe they’re overloaded from all the thoughts the convention has brought…maybe a thousand different things that having the perfect icebreaker question and the perfect conversational charm and all could not have changed, because it’s not about you at that point. But. You start with a handful of touchstones readily at hand, something brought us here and you can take that literally and ask about Delta Airlines or the other person’s Prius to warm yourself up, or you can dive right into literary influences of adolescent angst, or somewhere in between. It’ll be a collaborative effort. We’ll all get there together.

It’s not your turn, sir.

I had a really good time at ConFusion, and I am planning to go back next year. My friends are great. The programming was lovely. Yay concom. Yay ConFusion. I put that at the beginning so that you will have the context: general positive feeling, sense that the con has handled things well and is a good place to be, overall.

So let’s talk about my second panel, Disaster Response in SFF. I was moderating. A gentleman in the audience had enough of the free-flowing discussion provided by the panelists, apparently. He did not wait for Q&A or even raise his hand. He just jumped right in, interrupting the panel to lecture us with a long, hostile, rambling comment on his own theories of where this panel should go and how wrong we all were for not going there.

When we tried to address this gently but firmly, the individual was having none. He leapt into the lack-of-breach again to angrily and belligerently espouse his viewpoint. It was fairly clear that he felt that he got to direct the content of the panel, that not only did he get a voice but that he got it whenever he wanted and to the exclusion of the people who were actually on the panel, and that we were offending his sensibilities by having our panel discussion instead of the one he controlled.

At that point I had had enough and instructed him that it was time for him to let the panelists return to our discussion. With visible incredulity, he asked, “Are you cutting me off?” I told him that, as I had never called on him in the first place, I was indeed. Patrick Nielsen Hayden was one of the panelists, and he backed me up and pointed out that it was not Q&A period and not his turn to talk. This man got up and stormed out in a huff.

He went down to complain to ops about me, volubly and at length.

Meanwhile, the panel went on with some spirit, and at the end of the actual Q&A an audience member (note: not a plant!) used their turn to talk to call for a round of applause for my moderating. People kept thanking me for how I handled it. Nice of them. I note this because I was not the one who was honestly shocked at how extreme and persistent his behavior was. This was not Standard Fannish Interruption.

The same guy came into the Visions of Positive Masculinity panel to make a very similar political point. For some reason, he was able to 1) wait until the Q&A portion of the panel; 2) phrase his idea in the form of a brief and civil question; 3) not pitch a fit and storm out even though the panelists on that panel openly mocked him. The moderator of that panel has in my estimate at least six inches of height on me. He is male. All the other panelists on that panel were also male, of varying sizes and shapes. He did not complain about any of them despite the fact that they basically dismissed his idea with derisive laughter.

Okay. So. I talked to some friends, some of whom were involved with the concom/staff, and given what I was saying and what they were hearing about his behavior, they encouraged me to file an incident report. ConFusion’s ops team did everything right here. Everything. They made sure that I was seated comfortably, offered water, offered my choice of report formats (written or out loud), that I had a person with whom I was comfortable with me for the whole time, that I could discuss my statement rather than just turning it in and not knowing whether it was getting any attention. They asked after my safety and comfort and what would make me feel safe and comfortable going forward at the con.

Here’s what felt like a sea change to me. Here’s what makes me write about this: they did not minimize OR maximize response. They were proactively interested in an incident of someone being rude and disruptive. At that point I was hoping that just having the incident report on file would be enough, that not having further confrontation would allow this person to go on with his con and simmer down, focus on time with friends, other panels, etc.

That person came to the next panel I was on, Saturday morning, and the moderator (not me) was very firm about what type of questions and commentary would and would not be allowed. The disruptive man followed me out of the room after the panel. I was leaving with two male friends. He sort of lurked in the elevator lobby glaring at me and then left. He was associated with a particular fan group that must gather somewhere, but I don’t know where: I didn’t see them around con space much, and they’re visible as a group. So that allowed me to relax somewhat, knowing that this guy was off with his buddies, (I hoped) settling himself down and focusing on something else. (Turns out nope. But I hoped.)

I’m going to be careful about how I put this next part, because it’s not my story to tell: he approached someone involved with the con to complain about me again on Sunday morning. Please note that the original incident was Friday afternoon and that I did not say or do another thing related to him. But Sunday morning he felt the need to approach someone to lodge another complaint that I would not let him disrupt the Friday afternoon panel. This is the part where I feel the need to be vague: his behavior then escalated with that person. It is being handled. His continued fixation and escalation are disturbing to me, and I’m very glad that the concom/persons formally associated with the con are handling it well thus far, as well as, of course, very grateful for my friends and their support. (Oh friends. Oh, thank you, thank you, friends.)

So here’s why I’m posting this:

1. This would have been a totally different experience at many cons. I didn’t go to ConFusion ten years ago, but I expect it would have been a totally different experience at ConFusion ten years ago. There used to be a reluctance in fandom to handle anything formally. Don’t come into my mentions saying, “Not at MY con,” because you know very well it’s true, there was ALWAYS a reluctance to handle anything formally that was not a direct assault charge (and sometimes even then). “Are you sure you want to make a thing of this” was practically a mantra, and we all knew it. The difference between a convention that went into “are you really going to make us deal with this?” mode and a convention that did not want to escalate but also understood that this was in fact theirs to deal with was astonishing.

And it did not require assuming that any of the bad behaviors were definitely going to get worse at any point. I am frustrated with how often discussions of bad behavior at cons–sexual harassment or other behaviors–behave as though it’s a binary system, wherein people are cast into the outer darkness at the first peep, the first nasty glare. The only bad thing that happened to this man before his last escalation was that nobody allowed him to disrupt a panel and recenter it on his own views. That’s it. That was his negative consequence. But my positive consequence was that I knew that the convention had my back if things got worse.

Yes, I had my friends. I am so very, very grateful for my friends. But my friends and I could go on with our con without them making up a guard roster wherein I never went up to my room to drop my coat off alone, never dashed for a panel leaving one group of friends in the lobby to meet up with another in programming space. When you’ve had a bad interaction and the person from it turns up in the places he can easily find you, follows you out of them…that’s the sort of precaution your friend-group starts to assemble in a double-quick hurry.

I’ve had to be escorted everywhere for disability reasons, before I was cleared to use my cane on bad vertigo days. It comes with pitfalls. Among them: are you going to lean on your absolute closest friends for every single escort duty? If not, are the outer circle group members you’ve just met actually as trustworthy as you hope? (Answer from past experience: no. No they are not. Some of them will use this opportunity to do things to you on the theory that, hey, it’ll be better than what you’re afraid of from other people.) But even aside from that, it’s annoying. And it’s the sort of thing that adults should not have to do in a public place.

There have always been real consequences to people in my position for experiencing something like this. When you’re running an event like this, you get to choose whether there are real consequences to people in his position.

2. This was not sexual harassment. But it was gendered.

The person he approached to complain about me on Sunday was, like me, wearing some of the trappings of traditional femininity. The people who laughed in his face Friday afternoon with no complaints, no consequences to themselves? All male. All male and all masculine. And yes, I was the moderator on my panel–but he didn’t say a word about Patrick cheerfully saying, “Bye!” to him as he departed, or about Patrick backing up my moderating. There was no complaint about Patrick. It was all me.

I’ll cope with it. That’s fine. But see it for what it is.

Dealing with sexual harassment in convention spaces is hugely important. It has been hugely important for me personally. But don’t for a moment make the mistake of thinking that it is the only gendered interaction that matters. And don’t think for a moment that the dynamic would be the same if he’d decided to turn up glaring with Patrick or treat a male concom member the way he did the person on Sunday. It’s no accident he didn’t try–and so conventions need to be equally deliberate in their handling of this sort of thing. ConFusion was, and I thank them for it.

3. If our situations had been reversed, I would have had the same options as the early part of his behavior. Let me repeat that: in his position. I could have tried exactly the same things and seen what would have resulted.

Let me explain.

Let’s say that I was in the audience of a panel where the panelists were, instead of talking about how people tend to pull together in times of disaster (our actual topic of discussion, that offended him so), talking about something that offended my sensibilities to the point where I had to speak out. Let’s say I was in the audience of a panel about moderating, for example! And they were saying that women are just not capable of moderating well because we’re too weak!

I would absolutely have the option of speaking out of turn. Of not waiting for the Q&A portion of the panel to open my mouth and say, wow, you are so wrong, that could not be wrong-er. The moderator could then shut me down. And then I could take my complaint to ops and explain to them what happened, give them my side of the story, and they could decide what they felt their convention’s stance was on a moderator behaving in that fashion was.

And if the con decided that yes, that’s fine, that’s who we are as a con, I could take my woes to my friends, to the internet, etc. and explain what happened, what I said, what they said, what everyone’s position was. It’s the part where you then follow the person, attempt to intimidate the person, lodge repeated complaints about behavior that has not changed, and escalate with other people about their original behavior that really is…not an acceptable option.

This dude’s position, as near as I can describe it, was that fiction is boring if people treat each other decently. He brought that position to Disaster Relief in SFF and to Positive Visions of Masculinity. His other de facto position seemed to be that if some woman was running the panel he shouldn’t have to wait to talk, and that her making him wait his turn was intolerable enough to ruin his entire weekend and make a stab at ruining the weekends of others.

He didn’t succeed at the last part. And that was substantially because the ConFusion staff and concom did not let it. Also my friends did not let it and I did not let it. But: you have to decide for yourself what’s worth breaking the rules of discourse. You can’t be surprised if other people don’t agree with you if you don’t give them a good solid reason to agree with you. If you break the rules of discourse, you deal with the consequences of breaking those rules, even if you are in the right.

I understand that by posting about this, I risk having some people come in and argue with me, because I have used words like “angry” and “hostile” that require me to evaluate tone and behavior and allow people who were not present to decide that I must automatically be wrong. Perhaps he was not staring at me angrily when he followed me to the elevator lobby! Perhaps his face is always like that and he just had to be there! Perhaps the escalation I have not specified was utterly innocent also! (Hint: it was not.) Perhaps I am a sensitive snowflake who was utterly in the wrong and he is utterly in the right and everything would be fine if only I had not messed it up and then pointed out that it was messed up! Well. I am tired of that, and I’m not doing it any more.

I understand that some of you are very nervous that you won’t be able to read tone, either in yourself or in other people. That you will get deemed A Bad Person for reasons that you do not understand, and cast into the outer darkness thereby. Please note that that is not what happened here. If all that had happened is that this person had gotten angry and rude in my panel and stormed out–all of which, I grant, are tone readings–I would not be posting now. There were multiple escalations throughout the weekend. And still I have not declared him to be A Bad Person. Nor, you will note, have I named him to the internet. What I have done is named his behavior. More than that, I have described the excellent and supportive behavior of the convention–that latter is why I am posting in the first place.

I have a dear friend who spends a great deal of time turning backflips trying to come up with reasons why someone’s bad behavior might not be bad. Or why it might not be as bad as it seems. And I keep having to explain to him that what this means is that he is shifting the badness to other people, specifically to the people who were affected by it. That if it’s fine for someone much larger than me to complain about me doing my designated job, then follow me and glower at me, then it follows that I am being unreasonable to object to this.

We’d all like to think that conventions will handle the big dramatic cases well–the cases where police ought to be called, basically, the cases that make a harrowing story. (We’d like to think that. We’re often wrong, but let that pass.) This is not a harrowing story. It was mildly alarming, not terrifying. But I think that in some ways the edge cases are a different kind of difficult because they’re so easy to second guess. I really appreciate ConFusion’s willingness to sort this out as a case that wasn’t obvious and dramatic–as a case that could easily, if he had made different choices, have languished as a couple of incident reports from different perspectives and some eyerolling subtweets. They allowed room for everyone to make better choices from his initial bad ones, while still supporting me and making me feel safe and not making me feel like a constant burden on my friends. Having been at conventions where I had far less confidence about far worse incidents, I appreciate that more than I can say.

In Defense of Closings

One of my college friends linked to this article from her Facebook, excoriating people who use the email closing, “Best.” The article is full of hyperbole. (“It seems harmless enough,” says the author in the beginning, and then writes an entire article that fails to even suggest any actual harm done to any person, animal, plant, or ecosystem by closing an email with “Best.”) The author’s main objections to “Best” seem to be that it is rote and bland, and worse–oh, so much worse–she suggests just not closing your emails at all, in imitation of text/IM.

People. People. That is what is worst about text/IM as a medium. You can be chattering away with someone you like and then–no more chatter. Are they done? Are they just taking a minute to think? If you wander off, will they have more to say on this subject that they will say to an empty room, or will you be the one sitting there thinking, “…I guess we’re done here? maybe?” Obviously this is not true of “leaving the house be there in 10” or similar texts/IMs. But actual conversations–“goodbye” messages, closings of various kinds, give you very valuable information. “I am going away now. Do not expect more of me here. We’re done for the moment. I like you, but no more words now.”

At my house, “good night” doesn’t always mean “I am going to sleep this very minute.” It means “I’m done being sociable for the day, you don’t have to think about whether you’ve started the dishwasher inconveniently, etc.” It is a polite and affectionate “done now.” And it is very useful to know when the person you’re talking to is done for the day. (The more so if their sleep and your sleep don’t nearly line up, so you can’t just guess that now is the time when everyone is tired.)

So…does this have to be heartfelt every time? Sometimes you have a heartfelt “Thanks.” Sometimes you really do mean, “Love.” Great times, those. But “This email did not get cut off accidentally” is also valuable information, and “DONE NOW” is really not considered appropriate for business communications. Rote and bland are the goal here. Rote and bland are what you’re going for. “–30–” would be fine if it would be accepted. “Mris out.” Whatever. “This is my acceptable business closing, Marissa.” Fine–if it would work, no reason not to.

So yeah, the least I’m going to do is sign it “m.” Unless we’re going back and forth with emails quite quickly, I generally want to sign it. I want some indication: yes, I meant to be done. And further–suggesting that people just not sign things doesn’t really feel functional if you’re getting formally structured, signed emails from the other party–so then you’re kicked back to “what do I use to sign it?” And really–we have an obsession with creativity and deep sincerity in every aspect of our lives that is just completely misplaced. Sometimes you can greet people with “hey” or “morning” even if you did not come up with this heartfelt greeting just for them, just for this morning. Spending your time trying to come up with yet another “howdy” variant will leave you cribbing from Woody Guthrie and still not making a heartfelt and unique entrance every time. Sometimes the done thing is the thing to do. Dialog can be marked with “said.” Emails can be closed with “thanks” or “best” or “cheers” even if you do not literally wish to express heartfelt gratitude, you only wish the receiver some of your best, and you would not raise a glass to them given the opportunity. It’s okay. Really it is. Just give the necessary information, indicate that you’re done, and move on.

When I was talking to Tim about this the other night, he said, “I often close with, ‘here’s what I want to happen.'” That feels more like a last paragraph than a closing to me, but more power to you if you’ve got it. It also made me giggle thinking of doing this in chatty emails with friends: “Here’s what I want to happen: you feel like your friend [me] cares about you and you have a good time of it until I talk to you again, and also maybe you think some more about whether the structure of this series requires the books to be slow-paced now, let me know.”

In the middle of writing this post, I got an email from a friend that their phone had cut off in the middle. And it was not signed, and this friend signs their emails, so I knew there was more coming. And there was. SEE? Yes. That.

On the giving of advice

Last week I had a post about panels at conventions, and I got interested in how to talk about doing panels better. I’d like to see more people talk about that–especially in the contexts of different kinds of panels. Getting slightly more specific seems like it might be a fertile source of good advice, because I think one of the places people hesitate is that panels vary so much. Does it really make sense to tell people to reread a few of their favorite short stories on the topic so that their minds are fresh without a huge time commitment, if “the topic” is long series, or TV shows, or if they can’t readily think of what short stories would be applicable because it’s something like grimdark or paranormal romance that has had its main flowering in novel form? Answer: no, but anyone who has any chance of being a good panelist has the sense to filter out what advice doesn’t apply to their specific panel, I would think.

But I started thinking about the more general problem of giving advice, which is audience and characteristic error. Even in the standard panel advice that is focused on etiquette, I see this problem. For example! One of the most common pieces of advice I see is, “Don’t monopolize the panel. Let the other panelists have an equal amount of time to talk.” Except…what if you’re on a panel on Non-Western Cultures in Fantasy with four middle-aged white men, two of whom think that Lord of Light is the last word on the subject but are maaaaybe willing to allow for Bridge of Birds if you stretch a bit? Do you sit back and let them go on and on about those and then squeeze in your long contemporary list (complete with non-Western writers GO FIGURE) on your “fair share” of the panel? HELL NO YOU DO NOT. At least–I didn’t. And I am not sorry I didn’t. But that is not my characteristic error. My characteristic error is not to sit down at the end of the panel and stare at my hands and say, “very true, Socrates.”

But for some people it is. So when you give the “don’t monopolize the panel, don’t run your mouth” advice, the odds that you will make a dent in the people who monologue about their own brilliance for twenty minutes: fairly low. The odds that Sherwood or Caroline* will hear this and nod and say, “Oh, very true, it’s so important not to rattle on,” and will shut their mouths even further? Unfortunately high. So trying to dodge the pitfalls of advice-giving in that regard gets difficult, and the question becomes: who is your actual audience for advice in the first place?

For me, talking about panels, it’s mostly new people. Because new people do not have a shtick already. New people know that they don’t know things. They are looking to know more things. (Ideally so are experienced people, but we know that doesn’t always work out.) So you might be able to catch J. New Shyauthor and say, hey, you’re on the panel for a reason, here’s how to prepare for it so that you can feel more confident. And you also might grab L. New Blabbermouth early enough that they at least have moments of self-awareness when they remember to turn to Pamela** and ask what she thinks while the panel is still going on and not just out for supper later.

This is true of writing advice, too. The people who were likely to get down on themselves for not writing ten million words every day are the ones who will pick up on the “writers write every day” quote from whoever they’ve picked now to be the person to use to beat yourself up over it. The people who were likely to be flaky butterfly writers are going to choose the “art finds YOU” quotes instead. People gravitate to their own characteristic errors. Yes, even me. Especially me. So: balance, balance, balance. And seeking out advice from people not like oneself. And asking oneself who the audience is for advice in the first place and whether it’s even worth the time, because if you’re not going to be able to get past characteristic errors so that the person who needs it can hear it, better to write about how to make a macrame owl.

Nobody makes macrame owls anymore. I am from the tail-end of a generation consumed with kitsch and retro, and yet are there macrame owls everywhere? There are not. It seems that everybody’s characteristic error is not making macrame owls. You folks might really want to get on that. I’m telling you for your own good.

…eh, who am I kidding, nobody listens to unsolicited advice.

*Randomly selected names for hypothetical panelists. Resemblance to actual insightful fantasy writers entirely coincidental.

**See previous footnote.

Only maybe one point for it not being Free Bird

Friends, today I am here to talk about a serious issue affecting all of us. Or at least all of us who go to concerts, or possibly listen to concert videos on YouTube.

Will you stop shouting song titles at singers while they are performing.

Stop.

Just stop.

They know what songs they’ve done, or if they’ve forgotten, you shouting one isn’t going to make them suddenly spontaneously remember enough to perform the song credibly. If they only have one or two big hits, they especially know those. They know they are the big hits. They are aware. They may make a joke about it. This is almost certainly not because they think they only wrote one worthwhile song. No. It is because they know that yahoos like you only know the one.

On the other hand, if you are a hardcore superfan, shouting the titles of really obscure songs will impress no one. (Said the person with an obsessive memory who also knows those songs, who likes many of them, and who is still not impressed.) Sometimes an artist will solicit requests. That is when you get to shout titles. Otherwise there are many urges you must stifle when you venture into public with the rest of us, and this is one.

And in particular stop shouting song titles two or three songs into the set.

Seriously. Stop. Give them a chance to get their feet under them. Give them a chance to get to it, for the love of Pete. Possibly the song you want to hear fits in perfectly four songs into the set they had in their head. Five songs in. Possibly the song you want to hear is a great set closer–that happens a lot with crowd favorites. If all you want to hear is “Major Hit: the Only Chart Topper,” they run the very real risk that if they walk out and play it first, you will be restless or possibly just leave.

But if you sit/stand there and shout it every time they stop singing? This is at least as disruptive. Cease.  Desist.

We have this lovely technology that allows you to make a playlist. It’s called–follow me here–a playlist. What it is not called is a live concert. Those work differently. You do not get to fast forward through the bits you do not like; you do not get to pause when you have to pee, and above all you do not get to demand all your favorites in order of what you remembered liking just now.

I love the Cedar, I truly do. You can get varied hippie snacks (often falafel) and chai and locally brewed beer, and no one grabs your butt at a concert unless you brought them along and asked them to. All hail the Cedar. But sometimes the intimacy of the Cedar venue makes Cedar audiences into–and I say this with all love–entitled buttheads. Do not be an entitled butthead at the Cedar. Do not be an entitled butthead at any venue. If you are excited to see an artist, you may shout, “Woo!” “Yeah!” is also acceptable. I suppose if it is a rock-ish sort of show, “We love you, [artist’s given name]!” might be within bounds, but this is likely to disconcert folk artists, especially if they have moved to this area and gotten used to it here, so possibly stick to, “Woo!” You can’t go wrong with, “Woo!” Practice with me: “Wooo!” This is how you channel your excitement about possibly maybe hearing That One Song or maybe not.

John Gorka may be from New Jersey and not expect too much, but I’m from Minnesota and we have standards.

Everybody bubble

Four times this week I’ve run into people being plaintive about how everybody is excited about something or likes something except them.

Three of those times I wasn’t excited or didn’t like the thing either. But the thing is–I don’t tend to announce, “I am unexcited about the World Series!”  There are people who are excited. They can go ahead and be excited.  If I am directly asked, I will indicate that, no, it is not taking up much of my attention, but even then I will try to refocus to what I am really interested in right now is this other thing here. And I know lots of rules parents make for their kids about this with food.  “Do not yuck other people’s yum” is the most common phrasing I’ve heard. Some parents say “do not harsh other people’s squee” or various other things not to harsh. But basically: if it’s not morally offensive, if the flaws in it are not things you want to analyze for a reason, if it’s just not your thing, there’s no reason to get in the faces of those who are excited.

I think sometimes in a particular subculture it’s hard to get perspective, though. Two of the times above were about the new Star Wars. And it’s easy to see how someone could feel that their entire Twitter, their entire Facebook, all their nerd friends in person–eeeeeverybody was excited about it! But no, there are plenty of people who went to your high school who are excited about college football instead of Star Wars (in addition, of course, to the ones who are excited about both)–who are excited about a reality show that premiered last week, or frozen concentrated orange juice futures, or the campaign of some presidential candidate, or anything else, really, that is not Star Wars.

And this is even more worth remembering when it comes to novels.  Because the novel that “everyone” was excited about? Will probably reach fewer than 40,000 people worldwide. Probably far fewer. Its author, while a household name in my household and probably, if you read this blog, yours, is famous in such a complete bubble that my next-door neighbors–who like books enough to put up a Little Free Library on their corner lot–are guaranteed not to be able to identify the name as an author rather than a musician, actor, or dental hygienist.  And so complaining that “everyone” thinks their book is so great while you are the brave truth-teller who sees that it is not bad, not morally reprehensible, not even mediocre, just–not your cup of tea?  Does not tear down the rich and famous.  It just points out what that author already knows: that fame and glory has only arrived to them in a tiny, tiny pinpoint of the universe.

This is why I’m not using the author’s name. It would not be fair to focus on them as the “popular” kid who is not “really” that great when that’s not my point at all.  What is my point?  Perspective, perspective, perspective.  There is almost nothing that is universally adored, so if you’re feeling surrounded by people who like a thing you don’t like, who are excited by a thing that doesn’t excite you…does it actually hurt you?  Can you go somewhere and talk about a different thing completely?  Because there often is a reason that other people are not speaking up to say, “I am not excited! I don’t like it!”, and it’s not cowardice, it’s courtesy.

Does this conflict with my willingness to give harsh or mediocre reviews? Eh, I don’t think so. I think going out of my way to single out a thing to say, “Not excited!” or, “Not that great!” is not the same thing as more context. But if you think I’m wrong, go ahead and tell me why you feel I’m wrong, I’m interested in discussion.

On Welcoming

We have been talking a lot, around my house, about welcoming, about conventions and communities and welcoming people into them. I keep saying a thing that sounds tautological and yet strikes me as important, which is: if you don’t welcome people, they will not feel welcome. Welcoming is a thing that someone has to do. It does not spring up of its own accord, as violets in the spring. Making new people feel welcome to an event or group takes work. So I want to talk about the basics of how that goes, and if you have ideas (or agree or disagree), I’d like to talk about it in general. Clearly there’s no one behavior that will appeal to everyone, so let’s talk about what works for whom and what doesn’t. A lot of it should apply across large-ish event type, whether it’s a club meeting or a convention or a religious group or simply a large party drawing from multiple social circles/connections–and if I’ve screwed up where things don’t cross-apply, please do speak up.

Chronology first: do not neglect introductions, and keep them low-key. When I was talking about this post with friends, one of them told a story about when she first went to her church. The pastor had them stand up to be pointed out to everyone as new people for four weeks in a row. He called them out by name, so it wasn’t just “any new people, please stand,” it was, “[friend’s name] and [friend’s husband’s name], please stand up,” pointing at them and waving them to their feet. From the way she told the story, I think the fact that they are still at this church has more to do with them being from a small denomination with limited local options than finding this behavior welcoming–even though that was probably the intent. Having people come up to say, “Hi, I’m [name], I don’t think we’ve met before,” or, “I’m terrible with names–I’m [name], and I’ve probably met you before, please don’t hold it against me that it takes me forever to remember people,” or anything, really, that’s introductory, would have been fine. As long as they weren’t singling out people to stand and be commented on in front of a group that was not similarly engaged. Introductions should be equal–not, “everybody, this is Chris; Chris, this is everybody,” where Chris’s status as new is singled out without giving any information about others, but, “Chris, do you know everybody here? This is….”

I find that performing introductions is often neglected in situations where everybody has a name badge, and yet it’s a very warm thing to do. It makes the new person–or people–feel looked out for. Also, the fact that the guy standing next to me is wearing a name badge that says “Kevin” does not give you the same information as, “This is my brother Kev.” Introductions can provide context that will help new people navigate the situation.

I have seen advice that to be “charming,” you should introduce people you have just met as “my new friend.” This is a risky move. It’s both culturally and personally dependent. Some people will indeed find it charming; others will find it alarmingly pushy or fake. Proceed at your own risk, and also remember that personally charming is not the same thing as welcoming to a group event. The two may overlap significantly, but they’re not the same.

Introductions don’t have to be performed at the beginning of an event, and actually the very beginning is often a shaky time to spot who needs a welcome. One of the people I talked to about this said that they felt particularly welcomed at Fourth Street because people were saying, “Oh, this panel is going to be great, it’s blah and blah and blah, come on and sit with me”–and that’s something you can do before any panel. If you keep an eye for who seems to be standing around without ever talking to anybody, that person may be an introvert who knows the whole group, but they also may be new. Doesn’t hurt to check in with them. Think about what behaviors you exhibit if you’re uncomfortable and trying not to stick out as the newbie, and then look for people exhibiting those behaviors and reach out to them.

Tim’s dad had a sabbatical once to study what successful churches had in common, and the answer was doughnuts. Seriously. Doughnuts. Churches that provided doughnuts gave people a framework for standing around doing something afterwards, and that gave people a chance to get to know each other and choose to stick around. Obviously not every group or event has to have doughnuts (although I can hear some of you thinking, “But what a wonderful world it would be…”), but the more general case is to have easily recognizable refreshments and/or low-key modes to interact. At conventions, hotels often provide a table full of water pitchers and glasses in the back of a conference room, and this is a great space to watch for people who are nervous, alone, seem to be trying to fill their time without anyone to talk to. Consuites/hospitality suites also can do a good job of this by providing snacks that are clearly labeled in a space people can gather in–but that only works if at least some of the people who are used to coming to the event keep an eye out for new people, rather than darting in for a handful of cashews or a soda and rushing out again.

“Are you new here?” is an okay conversational gambit, but it turns out that you don’t have to go there if you don’t want to. There’s no harm if you go up to someone to try to make sure they feel welcome/know people and it turns out they know everybody and have been there longer than you have. Starting out with, “I thought that was really interesting about A [on the panel we both just finished listening to]; it reminded me of B. Have you read B?,” works at least as well. Or, “Can you believe the prices in the hotel restaurant?” or whatever else is on your mind about your common interest. (At a party: “Do you know where [host] keeps the [item]?” or even: “So how do you know [host]?”)

One of my friends noticed that the sorts of things I was talking about require people to pay attention to others and reach out with human warmth, and she immediately, in her own words, tried “to find a way to automate that.” She mulled over all the “icebreaker”/”getting to know you” activities she’d been forced into and tried to figure out why none of them worked. I think it can’t be automated. There are some things that can be structurally organized–having a place for new people to gather to find someone to go to meals with is a thing that’s worked at more than one convention I’ve been to–but I think that human warmth and attention is the most important factor in whether someone feels welcomed, and you can’t build that into trust falls or two-truths-and-a-lie games.

Also, mandated “getting to know you” games often go counter to the reason you’re gathered in the first place. If you’ve come to a science fiction convention to talk about science fiction and related topics, being assigned a focus group is not actually what you’re there for. Even if the focus group is “here are the four people you will be assigned to discuss your panels with,” so that it would theoretically be in keeping with the mission of the event, the free flow of conversation is a huge part of the point. Anything you do that is supposedly to welcome people but actually interferes with the thing that brought them there to begin with will fail. And it’ll annoy a lot of the established people along the way, and some of them will either opt out or participate in a half-hearted way that will make new people feel like more of a burden. Occasionally you’ll bond over how annoying this welcome-game is, but you can’t really plan that–and adding annoyance to your event is a good way to get people to bond against you, not with/for you.

Recognize that not everybody is going to be a good candidate for welcoming new people. There is a great recognition on the internet for RBF (“Resting Bitch Face,” for those of you not familiar), and while people with RBF can overcome it to be deliberately welcoming, there are some combinations of body language/affect that will just feel closed down and foreboding even when the person doesn’t mean to. When you get to know these people, you can sometimes find that they are good-hearted, interesting, warm, etc.–but you shouldn’t demand that they be the ones to welcome new people. Further, some people simply don’t want to. It’s not a goal of theirs. And that’s okay. And then beyond that–someone will be having a bad day for whatever reason, and just run out of cope for new people. Outreach requires having some kind of ground to reach out from; any kind of health or personal issue will have the potential to make it much harder for any one person to welcome new people. Not everybody has to do this stuff all the time. Just, y’know. Some people. Some of the time.

Start welcoming people sooner than you think you should in terms of your own experience at the event/convention/whatever. I have heard complaints from people who have been going to an event for years and have dozens of friends there about how they felt that they were “new people” and were not getting outreach. At that point, you should be doing the outreach. With very large groups, you’re likely to be able to find someone more experienced and socially connected than you are. That doesn’t make you the new kid. Go find a new kid and be nice to them.

If your event is not explicitly about people finding other people to date, consider waiting until a new person has been to this event more than five minutes before hitting on them. Also, err on the side of not getting into people’s personal space until you know them. If they’re someone you know quite well online but have not seen in person before…you can ask with words whether they feel like hugging you. “Hug or handshake?” only feels awkward if you feel awkward about it. It’s way less awkward than just going for the hug and finding out, oops, handshake after all, or possibly friendly wave.

You cannot actually welcome everyone all at once. Relevant to the above paragraph: you can’t actually welcome harassers and people who would prefer not to be harassed and have them both feel equally welcome. Sometimes you have to draw a line and say, “hey, buddy, we don’t do that here.” (This is true if “buddy” has been involved in the group longer than you have as well as if “buddy” is new.) You have to decide who you are, personally and as a group, and accept that this will not welcome everyone evenly. If someone makes a racist remark and you call them on it, they will probably feel less welcome. On the other hand, the people who don’t want to hang out in a group where racism is accepted will feel more welcome hearing you say, nope, that is not how this group goes. It stinks that you have to, like, pick your side and get confrontational and stuff, but that’s how reality works. Obviously you won’t get this handled perfectly–conversations will go past while you’re trying to figure out what to say, or you’ll blurt something out that isn’t perfect, or whatever. Life is like that. Sometimes when you’re giving introductions, you’ll try to introduce people to each other who were married when you were in grade school. (Ahem. Ask me how I know.) Nobody really cares. That’s the sort of thing people laugh over and then move on. It’s hard to be welcoming without having at least some potential for looking uncool. So: priorities, up to you.

More on welcoming: what has worked for you, what has really not worked, what am I missing?

Off the registry

One of my friends is getting married, and she asked (sounding exhausted, poor dear) whether it was lazy and irresponsible not to do a gift registry. I said not at all, that a registry is for your convenience and the convenience of your guests, and if it isn’t convenient for you, don’t do it. Symmetrically, I have also had at least three conversations in the last four months about what to get people who either haven’t registered or who have but whose registries have been picked clean by the time the person talking to me got there. So here we are! Wedding gift ideas for when the registry, in one way or another, fails you!

Money. Yes, I know that in some subcultures this is not the thing to do from the giving end. I don’t really know of any in which it’s not the thing to do from the receiving end, though. If you are the best friend/person of honor, odds are pretty good that they were thinking maybe something they could look at specifically, rather than money. Otherwise, hard to go wrong with money. I have never once heard a bride or groom say, “Darn that money; I did not want any money.” (I have occasionally heard, “Auntie so-and-so really didn’t have to do that!”, but that’s Auntie’s choice.) But if you don’t want to give money, don’t. (Among other things, money makes it very clear how much you spent on their wedding gift, because it’s right there on the line of the check. Some people feel uncomfortable with that. If so, read on.)

Art. Rule of thumb: this is a better idea the better you know the people getting married. Another rule of thumb: small things that you think are beautiful are a better idea than big things that you think are beautiful unless you REALLY REALLY NO REALLY know that the recipients of the gift want that specific seven-foot-tall welded nearly-abstract sculpture that turns out to clearly be a goat when you look at it for more than a minute. When Mark and I had to pick out a wedding gift last fall, we chose one of Tim’s prints. We did not pick one of the panoramas that is longer than I am tall, because the people who were getting married had never said to us, “You know what would be really great on the wall of our living room? That bridge panorama, that’s just gorgeous. If he could do a seven-foot long print of that, it would really be the best thing.” It is just gorgeous. It’s amazing. But he also had several other amazing things that had better odds of fitting in a home we’d never seen, just in physical terms. If you choose art, there’s some chance that the recipients are going to say, “Oh…that’s…really different…” because taste in art varies so much. You don’t want to compound that problem with, “That’s amazing! That’s so gorgeous!…where are we ever going to put it.”

Food. I know, they won’t be looking at it on their 20th wedding anniversary saying, “This is the ham that Jen gave us!” (Well. Unless they’re related to Klages; then all bets are off.) But honestly, a lot of people aren’t looking at their blender on their 20th anniversary with that thought anyway; either it breaks or they’ve forgotten who gave it to them. If you know that the people getting married cook or bake, stuff they might not buy themselves all the time–or might still appreciate if they do–is great. (I personally think that vanilla beans are always a great gift. ALWAYS. Nobody ever gets them for me. Literally. I have never once gotten them. But they would always be a good gift. I have actually gotten truffles and truffle oil and saffron, and they too are good gifts, even though I buy myself saffron every time we run out–this is how I can tell we are rich by global standards. And/or I am a spoiled cook.) If you don’t know that they cook/bake, treats like a wheel of good cheese, chocolates, a jam of the month club, bacon of the month club, fruit of the month club, etc. are things that they can eat without having to know a great deal about preparation. Labeling a basket of this sort “honeymoon snack attack” or “never too soon to spice up a good marriage” or “here is your cheesy themed present” is not necessary unless you have the sort of relatives who will look at each other and say, “Why did they give me cheese/spices/what the heck is this?” But some people do have that sort of relatives if they are given something that is not tea towels, so.

Strong drink. Might have a better chance of lasting to be opened on a large-numbered anniversary than the food. Then again might not. People in liquor stores are often quite good at helping you with “I want a ‘special bottle’ and my friends drink this sort of tipple.” Then if you blanch at the price you can say, “Not quite that special; they’re not that good of friends, I’m afraid,” and unless you’ve chosen a horrible liquor store, the clerk will laugh and get you something more like what you wanted. And if you’ve chosen a horrible liquor store and the clerk tries to pressure you into buying the expensive thing, you walk out and go somewhere else.

Obviously with both food and strong drink, you will have to remain sensitive to key questions like “do my friends have dietary needs.”

Towels and sheets. I know, I said your friends were not registered or the registry had been bought out. But linens wear out. They wear out. Seriously. They. Wear. Out. Spares are good. Put the receipt in the package in case everyone else thought so too, or in case the people who are getting married hated the colors or materials you picked, or in case you guessed wrong on the size. Sheets. Towels. In fact, if you have loads of extra cash, go buy some for people you know who are not in the “just getting married” demographic. Linens for everyone. Is there anybody who couldn’t use a few new linens, other than the person who just sighed, “OH FINE” and went and bought some? I just wore enough holes in one of our big lovely bath towels that it is now a big cruddy bath towel and had to get relegated to the rag towels, and another one is close on its heels. I rolled my eyes at the label “guest bath towels” in one of our wedding presents, because we did not have a guest bath and did not anticipate having one for some years. But I didn’t return those towels, because: towels. Useful, regardless of how they were labeled.

What about charitable donations? I am less keen on recommending this absent specific knowledge of your friends’/relations’ relation charitable inclinations for several reasons. First off is that if the people who are getting married want to donate the money you have given them to charity, they can! Hurrah! So write them the check and let them do it. Because you are giving them a gift, not trumpeting your own charitable inclinations. You need to be really careful that you are not making this happy occasion about you. We have a cultural perception that if we put the words “FOR CHARITY” on something, it cannot be selfish, but actually it can. It really, really can. Your friends and relations will prioritize charitable needs/causes differently than you do. They might know things you don’t about a charity you thought was innocuous, or have different opinions than you do about its policies. Be really, really careful about this one. The people getting married should feel absolutely sure that you were thinking of them on their special day, as well as of whoever else you wanted to help.

String, or nothing. This was Mark’s suggestion, but he’s actually right. Presents are always optional. They really, really are. The reason the traditional etiquette guides consider it rude to put, “No gifts, please,” on invitations is that gifts are always optional. They are always supposed to be something that your guests feel spontaneously moved to give you, not something that they are dragged into. If you truly can’t think of anything you want to give people, you don’t have to give them things. “The gift of your presence is enough” should really, literally always be true.