Worldbuilding: continuing thoughts after panels

I was on a worldbuilding panel at ConFusion that was labeled Worldbuilding 495, intended to be graduate level in contrast with another panel that was labeled 101. I’m not sure we got it that far, but we certainly took it beyond default questions. And then I went to another panel where an audience member’s commentary made me shoot steam out my ears (seriously, ask 4/6 of the panelists–maybe the other two too, but four of them commented on my face after), and so here we are with a handful of post-panel thoughts.

I think the thing I didn’t get to after my own panel was about sidelong politics and parallel social structures. We have those! We have them everywhere. If you ask who is president of the US, who is prime minister of Canada, etc.–even who is in Congress, who is on the Supreme Court–that doesn’t give you influential members of the communities that might interest you. Who’s the president of a charity, who are the major donors. Who are the people who make sure there are chairs set up for that charity’s talk. Who’s the lecturer at the university people want to hear; who’s the journalist who calls them. All of these groups have their own internal and overlapping politics. If you read about monarchs and heads of state, you’ll get one picture–and maybe that’s the picture you want to draw. But if you read about things that are less centrally about governance, a different picture emerges–sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.

Sometimes even basic social structures don’t overlap much with the official government. The work of James C. Scott has been really influential in my thinking about this. He writes about hill people as a particular category of peripheral social groups to empire, and how and when they succeed at keeping themselves out of the imperial eye. And we have a bit of that in our legends with Robin Hood, but I think there’s a lot more potential here.

I left the other panel with a strong sense of classism in worldbuilding, and I’ve just run into it in the book I’m reading too. I think it’s worth asking ourselves, especially in urban fantasy and near-future SF, how much the shorthand we’re using for “these are bad people” overlaps with “these are poor people, these are the lower classes.” I think it’s worth making some effort not to do that. And if it’s farther-future SF, it’s worth considering whether what you’re saying is “some groups of people are just squalid and awful no matter what you try to do for them because they inherently aren’t like us.” And don’t do that either.

The commenter at the panel used “eating potato chips and watching TV” as his flag for the mentally inferior lower classes. There were potato chips in the consuite and lots of panels on TV shows…but we all know he didn’t mean our snack foods and filmed entertainment, he meant their snack foods and filmed entertainment. You know. Them. And if we lived in a post-scarcity society, he went on, they would likely outbreed us, and what would happen to our utopia then?

Because, y’know, education is not a scarce resource now, nor are time and energy, so any way that they are is because of how they are. Previous situations where people’s standard of living was improved and their family patterns changed are not relevant for reasons. But it’s not racial! It’s just…about groups of people…who have inherent group traits that make it just and right that they’re poor and we aren’t. And all the nerds who have families who don’t understand them don’t count as counterarguments to the idea of being swallowed up by a growing inherent inferior class, apparently, because reasons. Because it’s so much more satisfying to create an us vs. them. Because you can say beer and cable TV, as the book I’m reading now does, safe in the knowledge that it’s not our beer (which is the good beer) and our cable TV (which is the quality shows). And if one of our people happens to like entertainment with a broad base of appeal, clearly we’re liking it differently and it doesn’t count like when one of them likes it.

“The Marching Morons” needs to go. March on. March away. Just stop doing your worldbuilding in ways that postulate that people are entirely awful by demographic group. We can all do better. And we should.

Preexisting

I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir with this, but the thing about preaching to the choir is that sometimes you get at an angle of analysis the choir hasn’t been using. I have heard a lot of “depriving people of health care is bad” arguments that are absolutely true, but not a lot of the following.

So let’s talk about preexisting conditions.

You know those commercials that tell you to tell your doctor if you’re suffering from dropsy, the vapors, or a dozen other conditions that make you think, “Shouldn’t my doctor know that already”? Under the current system, where people can’t be dropped from all insurance possibilities based on a preexisting condition, those notifications are necessary because record-keeping and institutional memory are imperfect. Your doctor should know that already, but they may now, so: probably mention it, huh.

But if you can be dropped based on a preexisting condition, it takes on a whole new meaning. “Tell your doctor if you have a history of respiratory infections”: right, so your doctor can write down “history of respiratory infections” in the course of figuring out what drug to give you for something different, and boom, there you are with that tag on you, and who knows what the consequences will be. Your doctor needs to know this stuff to figure out how to treat you–sometimes to figure out a subtle cause or contributing factor to what you have right now–but you suddenly have incentive not to tell them. Healthy as an ox, me, just this sprained ankle to deal with! Something very temporary! Oh please don’t tell them I have anything non-temporary. Please ignore the anemia. Do not test my thyroid. Forget the anxiety. I just won’t get treated for the life-altering allergies. Only deal with the condition I tell you I’m in here for. For heaven’s sake don’t run any tests because you caught a murmur listening to my heart or my blood pressure is behaving funny. That’s all the sprained ankle. Has to be. And let’s wait until whatever else there is has caused permanent damage, because that’s the point at which it’s too bad to ignore.

I’m not saying this hasn’t happened under the current system. It does. Of course it does. We should be moving away from it, not towards more.

And this is all bad enough when we’re talking about a heart condition, or depression, or, well, any of a number of things. But when we’re talking about something contagious, all of a sudden it’s more than a dangerous calculation for one person–it’s a dangerous calculation for the people around them, too. Is what you have bad enough to disclose and get treatment, or should you just cope with it and keep passing it along to others? I should not have to say that this is not a good system. This attitude often gets billed as “be a smart consumer of health care,” but in this case a stingy consumer of health care is the opposite of a smart one.

But that’s not the only thing pushing people toward dangerous medical dishonesty in the current political climate. There are lawsuits wending their way through the courts claiming that doctors should not have to treat people who have certain sexual orientations. So not only the questions that pertain to your sexual health but also the ones about the rest of your life health–“Do you feel safe in your relationships?” is one of my favorites–are now extremely dangerous. Not just for getting dumped from insurance, although let’s not underestimate the impact of that. But for being rejected for emergency treatment even if you pay the entire gigantic bill out of pocket.

Last week a family member made a Facebook post of a meme saying that while other people freaked out in favor of or against Donald Trump, he was just going to keep doing what he always did. The people who connect me to that family member each have quite large preexisting conditions that can no longer be hidden–one of them was treated on an emergent basis, both of them are in the records. And of course there’s me and my giant flashing neon sign that reads “preexisting condition.” So…”keep doing what I always do” is not actually a functional mode here for his own family. It’s certainly not a functional mode for the country.

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.

Access, ability, health: this week’s round

After the debacle that has been several years of World Fantasy Con, Mary Robinette Kowal has posted a convention accessibility pledge. It’s worth a look; it’s worth thinking and talking about. I specifically want to highlight something that I know Mary and the other people who have been talking about this pledge agree with: that the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is a starting point for convention accessibility, not the be-all and end-all. Not everyone will want to sign this pledge for a number of reasons, but taking part in the conversation and advocating for accessibility is important for all of us regardless of what form it takes.

Accessibility is an ongoing conversation in part because it never takes part on just one axis. Something that makes a convention more accessible for people with one kind of limited mobility won’t help people with another kind; mobility accessibility won’t help people with hearing limitations; and so on. We understand more about neurodiversity than we did twenty years ago, or even ten, but our understanding is still imperfect.

It’s been disheartening to watch people get defensive on these issues, to see comments that amount to “I’ve tried hard and been a good person and that should be enough”–especially since “trying hard” often applies to completely different fields of endeavor: you can try very hard to have an allergen-friendly green room, and that’s wonderful, and it doesn’t do anything for wheelchair access to panels.

The post I intended to write, before this came up, was about unhelpful reactions to other people’s medical situations–thankfully not mine, no one’s in my house. I have watched people play “guess the random diagnosis” for a friend who was having enough trouble without having their random friends with no medical expertise whatsoever pelt them with guesses for diagnosis and treatment. I have listened to stories of misrecorded personal details that could have serious impact on future care. I have heard reports of care costs that were supposed to be covered by insurance and were not, to the tune of four figures–or that were covered by insurance, and were still four figures. So the main thing I wanted to say was, “Never start talking about someone else’s medical care with, ‘you should just…’ because it’s almost never ‘just.'”

And this ties back in with convention accessibility, because if you’re dealing with health problems and/or disability. Even if they’re short-term–even if you’re “just” broken your leg and “only” have to get around on crutches for weeks. You are already wrestling with a labyrinthine system that is draining your time and energy in addition to the health problem that is draining your time and energy. And then you turn to your leisure activities to relax, and you’re the one who has to put in more and more time and energy to make them baseline functional. If the conrunners don’t do it in advance, it’s the people who are already having problems in the first place (this is a known pattern across other concerns) who have to put in more time and energy that they already have depleted.

I had a miniature hissy fit while doing some revisions on Itasca Peterson, Wendigo Hunter. I was adding supporting characters, and I noticed that everyone in the book was apparently able-bodied. And I had a miniature meltdown in the privacy of my office, going, “I have to deal with disability crap both first-hand and second-hand every day. Literally every. Day. Why can’t some able-bodied person who lives only with able-bodied people be the one to notice and deal with it in their children’s book?” I am not proud of this hissy fit, and when I had finished with my meltdown, I pulled up my socks and gave one of the kickass college students Itasca looks up to a kickass walker that is painted with cool designs. Which is not the ne plus ultra of disability in children’s books, so hey, any able-bodied person who lives only with able-bodied people who wants to notice and deal, feel free. But it circles back again: the people who have to deal with this stuff, statistically, will be the ones who deal with this stuff.

So if that’s not you, one way or another…think about changing the trend somehow? Thanks.

All the stars

Gather round, kids of all ages and genders. I’m going to tell you a secret.

The world does not come with a five-star rating system.

Several times lately I have seen people impose the five stars into systems that did not helpfully provide one. As if this is universal. As if this is the natural and right way to interact with the universe. No. No.

Yesterday it rained while I was out running errands, sheets of rain rolling into the river valley off the prairies. It was warm rain for Minnesota in November, though not in absolute terms, when what we deserve was snow, but we’ll take it. We’ll take it. My jeans were plastered to my thighs in less than a minute, my hair soaked through. I almost had to pull over, driving home, because there was so much rain that I couldn’t see two cars in front of me. I crept along through the wet white world.

It was not a five-star rain. It was a glorious rain, a drenching rain, a pounding rain.

Last weekend we heard the Minnesota Orchestra play short Sibelius pieces. The humoresques danced and romped. The Oceanides drew us in with woodwinds. For awhile I did not think of my loved ones who had been hospitalized that day. I thought of the music, of the woods of Finland and the sea and the music. At the end we clapped, and we went home, and there was no button to click for stars.  How many stars?  Five?  Why not more?  Seven, nine?  Ten stars?  Seventeen?

I know, I know–the things that do have the five-star rating system attached are trying to get feedback. Many times they’re trying to get past automated gatekeepers, and that can be a worthy goal. But the things that don’t have that don’t need you to impose it.

Sometimes things are so amazing as to leave you wordless. I know. I spend a lot of time there despite all my chattering. But “five stars” does not convey that. Any time you create a shorthand to try to convey that, it stops working the minute it’s established. For most of the things that matter, you have to get out there and say: this moved me. Or, I have mixed feelings about this.  Or, I was not so sure and then the tarragon flavor really hit me and I was a convert. Or you have to be willing to let people see the stars in your eyes.

All about

A couple of times in the last few months, I’ve had reason to say something like, “Sometimes things not being all about us are the worst, honestly.” Because I have had multiple friends and relations who are helping others deal with really bad things, and they have needed to hear it. So I thought I’d put it here, where other people could see it too.

A few months back there was an essay going around about how support needs to flow towards the person or people most affected by something bad. And I think that’s true and good. It’s just…hard to remember sometimes, when you’re watching the person who is most affected, that you’re allowed to need things from “outer ring” people too. It’s easy to get caught up in reminding yourself that it’s not all about you–and really, it’s not. But it’s a little bit about you. If you’re watching a parent writhe in agony, if you’re listening to a friend’s tears about something you can’t fix–that legitimately is hard on you. Even though it’s hardER on them. And it’s really important to be able to turn to somebody and say, “Well, that could have gone better.”

Sometimes the ritual reminder that it’s not all about you is usefully centering. It refreshes your patience and your perspective. But sometimes it minimizes that you, too, are having some pretty bad experiences in this general area. Sometimes it shuts down the conversation you’re currently having from including sympathy and/or brainstorming for how to make things easier for you. Sometimes it’s really, really okay if the things that are not all about you are just a little tiny bit about you.

Also, hang in there.

Intro, extro, it doesn’t mean excuses

In one of my moments of rest–brief and rare this week, although today’s vertigo is bad enough to require it–I followed a social media link to this post about being friends with an introvert, because hey, I’m an introvert, it’s useful to be able to point people at good advice where I can find it.

Hahahahaha no.

The more I see “care and feeding of introverts” posts, the more chances they have to get it wrong, and get it wrong they do. I don’t just mean describing types of introversion other than my own–although overgeneralizing from one sub-type is a pretty common mistake in the “care and feeding” posts. I mean just flat-out wrong, anti-useful, wrong.

Let’s take the earliest part of this post: “Without you, we’d probably spend every weekend in our pajamas watching Netflix, only making contact with another human when we open the front door to the Jimmy John’s delivery guy.” Uh…no. That’s not your introvert friend, that’s your clinically depressed friend. Or your chronically socially lazy friend. Or both. While individual introverts may depend heavily on individual extroverts to do the work of making social stuff happen for them, it’s not inherent to the personality type. And frankly, it’s a crappy behavior. For both sides.

From the introvert side, it’s an excuse for not putting the work into social situations. Because no matter what, making social stuff happen is work. It may be somewhat easier for extroverts, but it’s still work for them, and if you’re an introvert skipping along saying, “Tra la la, I’ll let Chris and Pat handle it, they’re extroverts, it’s no trouble for them!”, you’re being an ingrate and kind of a jerk. And you’re self-infantilizing: social skills are skills. You can learn them.

From the extrovert side, if you think that making social stuff happen is magic because you’re an extrovert, you’re going to be frustrated a lot. There are lots of extroverts who are terrible at this. Again, it’s a skill. Also, introverts and extroverts often want somewhat different types of social situation (or at least overlapping bell curves of how often they get which experiences), so if you’re going with the idea that introverts will never make stuff happen and depend on you, you run a couple of risks–one of never figuring out social stuff that your introvert friends would actually, y’know, like to do, and the other of running yourself ragged planning exactly what your introvert friends would like to do at your own expense.

So let’s all not do that. Social instigation takes energy. No personality type is In Charge Of it. Moving on: “When you’re around, we don’t have to do the heavy lifting to make conversation happen.” ARGH NO. Again: conversation is a skill. It is a skill that can be learned. Not all extroverts are good at it or want to be–there are highly nonverbal extroverts who just want to go dancing and not have to talk all the time, or play golf or softball or whatever. And all the stuff in this piece about introverts being good listeners: turns out that’s a substantial portion of the heavy lifting in conversation. And it turns out that neither talking nor listening is inherent to either personality type.

For people who write fanfic, writing fanfic and having fun are not actually opposites. See also: other quiet hobbies. “You came along and got me to have fun!” is one of the most toxic narratives I experienced people wanting to thrust on me in college, especially as a young woman: there were all sorts of people who knew this narrative as the slight social veneer on, “Here, Miss Librarian, take off your glasses and let your hair down. Why, you’re beautiful!” I think most bookish kids knew an adult who felt that snapping, “Get your nose out of that book!” was some kind of personal service, that we would thank them for it and feel ourselves better people for being forcibly pulled from things we liked in order to do things we were indifferent to. Fun does not mean loud and crowded; that’s another language than English.

Sometimes introverts can like someone enough to hang out with them two days in a row. This is particularly useful for people who want to, like, be married or otherwise in a permanent partnership, romantic or otherwise. Or sometimes it’s not even a matter of who you like as much as who you find easy to be around. Or relaxing. Or whatever. I sometimes score this as “you don’t count as people,” but even the people who don’t count as people eventually count as people–and that doesn’t mean I can’t go on vacation with them and go to museums two days in a row. I mean, yes, it is easier for me to get enough of a person I like than it is for someone extroverted. But sometimes there will be a special event that has a couple of days in a row–like a convention, for example–and I don’t want people dodging me on the Saturday of a convention because we talked on Friday, so obviously I am done. Yes, I will be really whumped for at least a week after. But the one day and done rule: no, not even remotely universal.

Sometimes introverts really are tired, and I resent this person poisoning that well. I have a chronic illness that is not going well at the moment; if I’ve dragged myself out to your party, I want to be able to say, “tired now,” and not have you hear, “peopled out.” Because I DO GET TIRED, PHYSICALLY TIRED, KTHX.

Sometimes introverts don’t answer your texts within thirty seconds because they don’t have their phone on their person, or because they’re up to their elbows in bread dough, or because they’re playing the piano, or any of a number of things that are not about hating you or wanting to be left alone for awhile. We’re like extroverts that way. We do things that don’t involve texting sometimes. Any time you’ve set things up so that you think someone hates you if they don’t always text you back within thirty seconds, you’ve set yourself up for a lot of misery when their phone battery dies or something else that is not about you.

…I don’t know, I think it’s almost as dangerous to make sweeping generalizations about the world from the inside as from the outside. Especially if your sweeping generalizations are the social equivalent of leaving someone else with all the dishes. The “we need you to make social stuff go” rhetoric reminds me a lot of the rhetoric you’ll sometimes see from gender essentialists about how without men we wouldn’t have dishwashers and contact lenses, and without women we would all grunt and hit each other. It’s not true of genders. It’s not true of personality types, either. So cut it out.

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?

Attention policing paradox

I was reading this article on attention policing on The Atlantic, talking about major light memes of the week and the reaction against them. And it struck me that the author wasn’t addressing one of the major problems with attention policing, which I saw in action this week, and that is: it backfires.

Authors know this. I have had writers at conventions try to convince me to give bad reviews to their books rather than declining to finish them and staying silent, because they know this: when you talk about something, you draw attention to it, and if you talk about it enthusiastically, you draw more attention to it, regardless of whether your enthusiasm is positive or negative. Sure, the people who read me are more likely to trust me if I say, “Uff da, that was a stinker,” but not 100% likely. Nor am I 100% likely to follow any of your recommendations! If you say, “That book was so boring, it was not worth the time, it was just hundreds of pages of Chinese medieval monetary theory,” why, that’s the book I just picked up to read! That’s music to my ears! So this idea that we don’t pay attention to each other’s recommendations 100%: this is a feature, not a bug.

It’s not that I’m unwilling to give a bad review. But I do think that it’s worth being careful, especially when my reaction is “this book [/movie/TV show/etc.] is okay but overhyped”–because that kind of reaction can contribute to making the work central. It contributes to the feeling that the work is the important one that everyone must discuss–even if they don’t like it.

So yes, on Thursday my social media feeds were full of llamas and whether a badly photographed dress was white and gold or black and blue. But they were also full of people talking about how they weren’t talking about these things. Talking about how they didn’t care. Even more of that came up for the Superbowl, the Emmys, the Oscars. “I am not watching the thing everybody is watching!” said everybody. “Look at me thinking it is not important, and making it more important by keeping it the only topic of discussion.” One of my FB friends posted a little cartoon the morning after one of the Academy Award shows that said, “I did not watch the thing,” and I wrote back, “Too bad, you missed a great hockey game.” Because there is more than one thing. There is always more than one thing.

Telling people, “You should not like the thing you like!” or “You should not care about the thing you care about!” hardly ever works. They already like it. They already care. If you want to shift discussion and attention, it’s time for the tried and true, “Look, the Winged Victory of Samothrace!” What can sometimes work is, “hey, look at this other interesting thing!” Because the other interesting thing engages. It provides its own conversational points–and yes, sometimes these relate back to the first thing that the other person was interested in, that you wish they weren’t. If you were tired of llamas, then hooray, a badly photographed dress came along! And then some people combined the two in ways that they hoped were amusing! Someone said, “But look over here,” and they did, and some of them were wholly diverted from the llamas, and some weren’t.

So yeah, you’d be disappointed if you were hoping that the next big wave of comments would be about Russian/Ukrainian politics or new treatments for bone cancer instead of badly photographed dresses. These two things are not very much equivalent, though, and “STOP TALKING ABOUT LLAMAS” never once got people to talk about bone cancer. Attention is capricious and fickle, but some parts of it are predictable, and that’s one. So if you’re frustrated with the llamas, go craft your comments about your new local cheesemaker, the anime you just fell in love with, or the charity you think is worthy. Make them pithy, make them shiny, make them interesting. Virtue does not always out in the attention economy. You have to help it.