Thoughts on Belonging, Part 3

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In my previous post on this subject, we arrived at a clearer understanding of when someone attending an event is most at risk of not experiencing the sense of belonging events usually aspire to offer, and of feeling isolated and left out instead. Before we move onto the practical strategies we can develop to minimise the chance of this happening, it may be worth reflecting on what’s going on when someone is heading into that state but is rescued from it and ends up feeling like part of the community after all.

I use the word ‘rescued’ because that it a word I’ve heard people use to describe what this felt like. And it aptly describes how I have felt in such situations too. And that itself says something about how quietly desperate the feeling is when you feel alone in a situation where everyone else seems to feel connected.

The tales of these experiences I have heard have a few traits in common:

  • They take place in the interstices of the event, rather than in the formal sessions: at hotel receptions, mealtimes, before a formal session starts. My guess is that this is when one is most likely to feel alone; during the formal sessions, there is a structured experience in which everyone participates together, but it is the informal in-between bits where people really get the benefit of processing the formal experiences together in their friendship groups, whether pre-existent or newly-formed.
  • There is usually more than one person involved in effecting the rescue: it is not just one person offering a conversation, that is, but a group of people who already enjoy a sense of connection extending it to include the person who feels isolated.
  • Once this initial connection has been made, both the rescuers and rescuee continue to seek each other out to maintain the connection throughout the event, and in many cases at any subsequent event they all attend.
  • The connection, while strong, and often amplified by the context in which it was made, is entirely platonic. I have one experience of what initially felt like a rescue (‘Oh that’s nice, somebody wants to sit next to me,’ were my exact thoughts) that didn’t turn into a life-long friendship because my rescuer had romantic interests in me that I didn’t reciprocate. And I felt bad about subsequently disentangling myself from that friendship, because he was nice and I felt grateful that he had kept me company when I was lonely, but that didn’t mean I felt about him as he’d like me to. (I don’t normally share these kinds of personal details I realise, but it was a long time ago, and I think the distinction is an important one to make.)

So, with all these things in mind, what strategies might head off a potential experience of alienation before it occurs?

  • Signalling who is attending for their first time so that other attendees can make sure they’re looked after. This one sounds like a good idea as it directly targets the people most at risk, but it isn’t guaranteed to succeed. I have known it work well, and I have also known it lead to people feeling singled-out and thus marked as not-belonging. In particular, I think it works better when the means to identify first-timers is subtle enough that it is only readily apparent to someone already near enough to be in conversation, and it needs to preserve the dignity of the people so marked.
  • Small-group activities that deliberately mix people who have not previously met. ‘Ice-breakers’ can be a bit of a cliché, but they can also be very effective if the activities are chosen to suit the interests and preferences of the attendees. I have made some long-standing friends in scratch quartet contests, for instance, and many people who attended the abcd convention in around 2005 have fond memories of the way John Rutter got all the delegates mixed up and interacting as a means to form the multiple choirs required to workshop Spem In Alium at the opening plenary session.

    Arbitrary ‘team-building’ exercises with no direct relevance to the subject at hand – as caricatured as the bane of work training sessions – seem less successful probably because they are arbitrary. If what people have in common is the purpose of the event, then staying on topic seems a more natural way to facilitate connection.

  • Tasks/activities designed for the break times that encourage people to interact with people they don’t already know. Delegate ‘bingo’ cards, treasure hunts, etc can make this into a game, or you could do it in a way that will feed into and enhance the experience of a formal session. (‘Like what?’ you ask. I’m just brewing some ideas that I might not have had if I had not written that sentence. So, I’m not entirely sure yet but this is exactly why I write a blog, you get ideas you might not otherwise have discovered.)

I note that with both of these the point is not only to make sure that somebody talks to the people who don’t have a ready-made friendship group at the event, but that the people who do have one also have step outside theirs. It’s not just about effecting introductions, but also about equalising the feeling of vulnerability, so that the old-timers experience the need to make an effort to connect as much as the new arrivals.

Key to any and all strategies, though, has to be that they kick in early. You can’t leave someone feeling left out for a day and a half and expect them to recover instantly or even ever fully once you do get them feeling connected. People who have not been rescued from this feeling until halfway through an event remember their sense of trauma even if they ended up enjoying the second half. They may retain a strong affection for the people who did eventually offer them a sense of connection, but they are likely to continue to feel equivocal about the event itself and by extension the organisation that held it.

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