Thoughts on Belonging: an Addendum

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My three recent posts about belonging, and specifically the experience of feeling disconnected at a belonging-inducing event (and also sometimes being rescued from that state), have produced far more response than my posts normally get. Much of the ensuing discussion took place either in Facebook threads or in private messages rather than in the comments on the post itself, so I thought it might be useful to reflect some of the points in a follow-up post to share the extra insight they generated.

There was a fair bit of sharing of good practice, much of which resonated with the approaches Daniel Coyle makes in The Culture Code. A useful comparison was with making things accessible for people with disability: rather than focusing on the needs of specific individuals, you aim to make your building/institution/process accessible to everyone.

There was also some interesting critique of the way you sometimes get an implicit (or, indeed, explicit) compulsion to belong exerted by either structures of an event or the behavioural norms of its participants. This can not only become intrusive, actually undermining safety, but then also merges into a form of victim-blaming when individuals feel disconnected as a result. The comparison with cults came up in this part of the discussion, so it’s worth linking back to a more detailed exploration of that from a few years back.

The thing that rose to the top for me, though, in the responses was how so many people who had had alienating experiences attributed them in some way not just to the event and its culture, but to the way characteristics of their own interacted with it. People attributed their experiences to being an introvert, or to neurodiversity, or to past trauma that makes it hard to trust.

But the sample of personal tales I was drawing on to theorise about these experiences was pretty much devoid of all of these characteristics. So they’re not the cause of the problem – though of course they will certainly inflect how an individual will experience it. And, for the purposes of the aspiration to hold events that don’t leave people alienated, this is just as well.

Because you can’t know all the personal challenges that people at your event are dealing with – as in the comparison with accessibility, you have to assume that there will be a variety of needs and aim to set things up to be as inclusive as possible to all of them. And, in the context of the experiences I have been reflecting on, the key this is to facilitate connection not just making opportunities for people to bond, but by actively loosening the surface tension of pre-existing in-groups.

People who feel left out will often describe an event or a culture as cliquey. And it occurs to me that the people who cling to their existing friendship groups in these circumstances aren’t doing it to be mean to those who arrived alone, it is actually a response to the same sense of vulnerability that the latter feel. Encountering lots of strangers is scary – or at the very least over-stimulating - for anyone, so it is not surprising if people hang on to the people they know all the more tightly. It’s just counter-productive for the event as a whole.

Amyway, the key take-away from these discussions for me was the message to anyone who is feeling left out: it’s not you, it’s the combination of everyone. Doesn’t necessarily make it easier to live through, of course, but no need to compound the problem by assuming responsibility for things that aren’t your fault.

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