Thoughts on Belonging, Part 2

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In my previous post I reflected on the problematics of creating a sense of belonging at events. Why do some people sometimes feel horribly left out at an occasion when most people are feeling happily connected? What can we do, when organising events, to make that less likely to happen?

Finding some common patterns in my own and friends’ experiences of alienation (Scenario 2 experiences as classified in my last post) seems like the best place to start to increase our understanding of what’s going on. I’m intending to anonymise both the sources of these tales, and the events at which they took place, which risks making it all rather abstract. Of course, I’ll know the details of what I’m inducing from, so I’ll be able to learn effectively from the experience. I just hope I can present it in a way that isn’t too unhelpfully vague for everyone else!

Qualities of the event:

  • Organised around a common interest that goes beyond the professional. People might be attending in some way related to their work, but they’re also motivated by a sense of personal commitment to be there. This is in common with Scenario 1 experiences (where the sense of belonging is achieved), but is also fundamental to the experience of alienation. If nobody is feeling a strong bond through the common interest, you don’t feel hurt by not feeling it either.
  • Is in some way a repeated event, either organised regularly by a single institution, or one of a serious of like events handed over from institution to institution. Either way, the key thing is that it offers people the opportunity to renew previously-made connections as well as make new ones
  • Has strong norms around the central interest/subject of the event, with attendant implicit expectations of what ‘one of us’ is like. All the usual axes of identity can get conflated into this: age, race, gender, class, educational background, nationality, modes of speech or dress. None of the latter will typically be consciously articulated as qualifying someone as an insider (or not), but the result is a generally more homogenous demographic than in the population at large.

Qualities of the alienated person:

  • Went there alone. Pretty much every example of alienation I’ve heard of has arisen when someone has attended an event by themselves rather than as part of a group with partner/family, colleagues, or ensemble-mates. Going with people you already know means you never have to be alone during all those in-between moments – coffee breaks, mealtimes, waiting for sessions to start. And you also have someone to share impressions with, to help you process the experience.

    Going alone doesn’t automatically make an experience alienating (otherwise nobody would ever do it!), but I’ve not heard tell of somebody having the Scenario 2 experience when they haven’t been. And of course if you do go alone, your need for a sense of belonging from the event itself is much greater than for those who come with people they already share one with.

  • Is not a regular attender. This is possibly a tautological point, since if you feel alienated on your first experience, you are unlikely to repeat it any time soon. But I’ve not heard of someone going regularly to a particular event and then one year suddenly losing their sense of belonging.

    Oh, actually I just did think of one. But in that case there had been a change in leadership since the previous visits, with attendant changes in ethos of the event as a whole. I think the generalisation that regularity of attendance increases the chances of a sense of belonging remains reasonably robust

  • Is in some way marked as ‘non-standard’ relative to the demographic at the event. This might be as little as simply being a newcomer to that world and thus as yet imperfectly integrated into its implicit norms (so basically a different way of couching the previous point), but in a number of cases, other dimensions of identity seem to have exacerbated the problem.

In addition to these general features, quite a few stories of alienation involve some specific incident that reduced or removed a sense of trust in the event. This is not a given, since not all accounts include this kind of trigger, but you can see how if you were already feeling a bit vulnerable and isolated in general, encountering a concrete obstacle to trust would tip you over into full alienation. I would hypothesise that in some cases, had the sense of belonging been adequate, it would have been possible to weather these incidents as just the normal kinds of hitches and misunderstandings that happen in life.

Putting all these things together, it seems that the most dangerous situation is for someone who is going to an event for the first time, alone, when a lot of the other people there have ready-made friendship groups, brought with them and/or made from previous attendances.

This sets us up nicely to think about what we can do as event organisers to help out with this, which I’ll do in a third post. I think it will also be useful, as part of that, to reflect on the scenario 3 experiences, where someone has been feeling left out and a specific intervention has rescued them from their loneliness and opened the door to belonging.

Though actually my next blog post is going to be about a coaching evening, so you’ll just have to think about this for yourself for a while until I come back to it.

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