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Marissa Lingen

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On Welcoming [Apr. 1st, 2015|01:26 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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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?




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: dichroic
2015-04-01 06:44 pm (UTC)
One thing is to try to take a step back and think about ways in which new people may be clueless, even though they seem obvious to anyone who's been around a while. For instance, gathering places with snacks in the consuites only work if people understand that they're allowed into the consuite - that it's not just for, say, con-runners and guests of honor. (Yes, I did have to ask once.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-01 08:14 pm (UTC)
Right, the difference between "consuite" and "green room"--and how strict the green room is at that particular con--is not intuitive to all newcomers.
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From: sheff_dogs
2015-04-01 08:25 pm (UTC)
Events for new members/attenders that just involve mingling work best if you have 'old' hands along too. That way new comers feel welcomed by the community rather than just the organsisers. And the old hands can demonstrate the behavioural norms too, rather than the newcomers developing ones that clash with the old norms (always assuming you aren't trying to change the old norms).
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-01 08:30 pm (UTC)
I definitely agree that segregating new people out is often a terrible idea. (Freshman orientation: way less fun and interesting than the rest of college.)

And that last parenthetical caveat of yours is also important, because...yeah. This is part of why changing old norms sometimes takes awhile: people who would not have signed on for them from scratch got pulled and decided whatever old norm was worth coping with for the good things the group did, until at some point they added up to enough people saying, "Um...no, actually. Not necessary for what our group does, and not actually a universal good."
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[User Picture]From: hobbitbabe
2015-04-01 10:30 pm (UTC)
When I'm the new person, I'm kind of looking for clues that they won't think I'm weird if they find out more about me. I don't assume the knitting group or the church is queer/poly-friendly. I don't assume the theatre class is quinquagenarian-friendly. I don't assume the welding shop workers will be comfortable knowing I have a doctorate. I don't assume that the poly discussion group is Christian-friendly. If other people's conversation about their lives hints at having experience with similar oddities, I unfold a bit and relax a bit. But if they seem to be assuming that everyone there is like-them in a way that's not-like-me, I stay cautious and distant.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-02 12:07 am (UTC)
This brings up one of the points I forgot to include, which is:

Be aware of the ways in which your demographic/identity might be different from the person's you're trying to welcome, and think about how that might shape their perceptions. The visually obvious differences are in some ways easiest to account for, though not always easiest to understand the implications of, but they're not the whole list.
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[User Picture]From: laurel
2015-04-01 10:42 pm (UTC)
Lots of good stuff here. I find the welcoming thing is especially tricky at SF cons because so many fans are introverts and socially awkward in fundamental ways. I think the "Minicon 101" sort of document I made a few years back mentioned this and how most fans at the con are genuinely happy to have new people show up, just kinda suck at showing it because they're shy. Dunno if that helped or was stating the obvious, but I felt a written welcome sort of thing might work better for fans (even if it was something of a pre-emptive apology too).

I think I included a list of suggested places I found as good places to hang out if you were new, too. Because I know some people just show up primarily for programming and are at loose ends between panels or just don't know where tables and chairs and such things are. A map in the program book or pocket program only goes so far, after all.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-02 12:00 am (UTC)
I think that knowing that it's not you, it's them helps...but only a little bit. Because at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter if you have no one to talk to at an event despite making strong efforts because the established people there are all shy, it still is not really the point of going to a large gathering.
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[User Picture]From: catlinye_maker
2015-04-01 10:53 pm (UTC)
I largely stopped going to church because of the "welcoming" thing. Unique to my situation, but as a full time RVer who travels roughly once a week, I found myself asked to stand up every Sunday. That got to be quite wearing, since I'm a shy person. The churches that were extra-nice in the "greet your neighbors" part of the service were a lot better. And the church lady who tried really hard to insist I take a mug with the church logo and a welcome bag really wasn't very welcoming at all, since we have no space for extra schtuff. I'm really an outlier, though. But I think it comes down to watching for discomfort? As an old hand greeting a newbie, you don't want to make them _less_ comfortable.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-02 12:00 am (UTC)
Seriously. Another thing in that direction for churches: being invited to stay for coffee: great. Someone who won't take no for an answer on the stay-for-coffee question: not so good.
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[User Picture]From: sam_t
2015-04-02 08:54 am (UTC)
'I have seen advice that to be “charming,” you should introduce people you have just met as “my new friend.”'

Eeek. This would result in me being stiffly polite just long enough to get away without causing a fuss.
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[User Picture]From: shark_hat
2015-04-02 01:01 pm (UTC)
One thing that's probably a good idea, but included a bit that intersected badly with my brain: a "First time at this con?" panel (early on the first day of the con); I can't remember much of what it covered, but it was partly so newbies could meet each other, and had some tea/coffee at the back of the room so you could chat at the end, and it was probably mostly very sensible practical advice.
The part that went down very badly with my introvert/nervous state was a "you get out of the con what you put in to it!" sort of exhortation. I'd been planning to mostly attend panels, and maybe strike up chats with people afterwards, in the same way as I do at professional conferences, hey, maybe gradually make a few acquaintances? Something about the way the presenters put the suggestion to talk to people made me feel that if I didn't go and randomly force my way into groups of old friends who were catching up and start Socially Interacting with them, I was being a failure at Putting The Effort In.
I genuinely don't know what it is that got me so badly about it, and I don't think it's necessarily something that con runners can/should generalise as advice, but… it was horrible, I ended up sitting in the toilets in tears, went home that evening and have never been to a con since (despite liking small fannish meet-ups).
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-02 01:57 pm (UTC)
I think this is one of the things that requires very careful tone/body language.

I also think that there is a certain "pull up your socks! it's all what you make it!" attitude among some circles of long-time con-goers that is not at all helpful. Particularly the ones who have idealized their first con experience and/or did not go alone.

This extends into other volunteer efforts around cons and in other places: "you get out what you put in" is just not true. It's just completely not true. It's very self-serving, and it's often used to squash people who want change. There are times when a person is willing to volunteer extensively and is not permitted to do so because it goes counter to what more established people want out of their situation. (Sometimes this is externally probably the right thing, too! But sometimes really not, and it doesn't change the fact that "volunteer and make it better" or "you get out what you put in" do not always work.) (It is true that sitting back and wishing for things to happen hardly ever works, either. But that doesn't mean that putting the work in will guarantee a positive result, and it doesn't mean that the other person actually has been sitting back and wishing.)

Just on a social effort level, I think many of us have been in situations (not necessarily at conventions although there too) where we were putting wayyyyyy more into the situation than we were getting out. No law of nature guarantees a just social return any more than anything else just is guaranteed in the universe. My first Minicon, I stood in the lobby stopping total strangers for quite some time (on the order of an hour) trying to find someone to have supper with, because I didn't feel comfortable wandering around an unfamiliar neighborhood in the dark by myself (it was downtown that year), and I knew literally three people. Finally one of them wandered past and had not had supper yet and introduced me to his friend, and I have been friends with that friend ever since (it was Ctein! yay happy ending!), but I was ready to sit down on the floor and cry at that point.

It's easy when you've found the right place to stand to tell people, "You have to put work into using your lever! You can't just stand there holding your lever and expect to move the world!" But if that person doesn't actually have a place to stand, that world isn't going anywhere, and it's very useful to remember that before the lecture comes out of one's mouth instead of after.
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From: vcmw
2015-04-02 01:58 pm (UTC)
Looking through your post and comments, I see mentioned interpersonal skills, specific actions, print information, and physical spaces (like the con suite, the water table, etc.). I think along with these, time and scheduling (both of space/events and of people) also affect how welcoming a space/event is.

One thing that's great for me at 4th St is how long the breaks between panels are. There's enough time to go to the bathroom / get a beverage / retreat to a hotel room for a quick 10 minute introvert-recharge and still have a little extra time for gracious hellos and introductions before and after the panels. Or enough time for a more substantive chatty conversation, if those other things take less time.

And time scheduling for people who are experienced about the event and want to be welcoming probably also affects this? Do those folks have some down time for themselves and also some open time that they can mentally save for welcoming, or are they on-call every minute to put out fires? Have they talked or thought about what kind of welcoming they might want to do and saved some space/time/energy for that in their schedules?

For me personally when I've worked events (in library gig, volunteering, and at office job), if I'm on-call/responsible during a time-block, for content or for time-keeping, I'm not as good at signalling welcome during that time-block.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-02 02:20 pm (UTC)
And it's a fine line to walk, because if you leave too large a gap, people get bored and wander off to do their own thing instead of continuing with programming, and the people who don't have an "own thing" to do feel more lost. But with not enough of a gap, all the stuff you've talked about ensues. So: close calculations really.
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[User Picture]From: landofnowhere
2015-04-02 02:22 pm (UTC)
From the perspective of a young academic who has recently been thinking about how to make her department more welcoming to undergrads, and also has experienced a lot of welcoming experiences due to having just moved this fall, I'd just like to say that this is really helpful and awesome, thanks!
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-02 02:22 pm (UTC)
Hurrah!
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[User Picture]From: cloudscudding
2015-04-02 04:30 pm (UTC)
I realized that something that works really well to make me feel welcomed is an invitation to something non-immediate. A line instead of a single point, as it were. So there's the "contact point" welcome, and the "future invitation" welcome, and in-between the two, there's feeling welcomed. For example, if I talk to somebody and then they invite me to join them for tea later in the day, I feel more welcome than if they invite me to join them for tea right then.

Conclusion: I am weird.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-02 04:55 pm (UTC)
No, I don't think that's just you.

Here's why: if you're invited along to something immediately, that can be very pleasant, but it doesn't actually signal that the person wants to spend time with you as much. It could just as easily be, "Oh, you might as well come along," as, "I will make extra effort to spend time with you." It's the difference between knowing that someone doesn't find you completely odious and knowing that they actually want to do something with you, even if it's just to get to know you enough better to find out if you can be real friends.
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[User Picture]From: cloudscudding
2015-04-02 04:40 pm (UTC)
Oh, and for things like table games, it would be nice if there were a little sign or something saying, "More players welcome" or "Sorry, we're all full" or "New game starting soon!" Not a very practical suggestion, I fear.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-02 04:53 pm (UTC)
I don't see why not.
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From: nenya_kanadka
2015-04-03 02:37 am (UTC)
This post is fabulous. I would 110% side with your friend who would rather be welcomed individually than by being singled out in a crowd. Yikes! Especially at churches, but then churches are especially fraught for me. Though I suspect I'm in no way alone in that.

And I wish I could pin "You can't automate it!" to the front cover of a hundred books and a thousand foreheads of the sort of person who bemoans Why Young People These Days Don't Come To Church. ("Stop being such homophobes," would also be up there, but...yeah.) People can usually tell when they're just a box to be ticked off, and cleverly disguising the box with the most recent Welcoming Language doesn't really help. :P
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-03 03:40 am (UTC)
One of the worst examples of this I ever saw was when a bunch of well-meaning middle-aged and elderly white people swarmed a young African-American man to be welcoming to him after church. After a few minutes one of them turned to introduce himself to the guy's blonde wife. "I was here last week," she replied, "and none of you said a word to me." At a mostly-white Lutheran church, he was a box to be ticked off, and she wasn't, and the fact that they were married meant that they each got to see the flaws in the way people were either ticking or not-ticking that box. Ick.
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