In ten days, I will be attending, presenting and blue-pencilling at the Creative Ink Festival in Burnaby, BC. (*Update: This year the festival is May 6-8) And while I know that any event created and hosted by Social Ninja Extraordinaire Sandra Wickham couldn’t be anything BUT friendly, fun and inclusive, I also know there will still be a few attendees who will feel as if they don’t fit in, feel unwelcome, feel lonely. Sadly, that is simply the nature of public events, and public events like SFF cons and festivals tend to attract a lot of folks who don’t feel exactly socially adept to begin with.
Geeks and nerds can feel unwelcome even among other geeks and nerds, shocking, I know.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when the person feeling out of place would have been me—equally shocking, I’m sure, to those who have met me in real life and know how utterly socially shameless I can be. (Especially shocking to those who have met my wicked social alter-ego, Sheba, Dancing Queen of the Desert). Let me assure you, my shamelessness was hard earned and came with a good dose of ego bruises and pity parties.
I was well into my twenties before the thought of calling a stranger on the phone and asking a simple question didn’t leave me in a cold sweat. I’ve always been fine on a stage but as soon as I had to be myself in any kind of social situation I panicked.
I do not have tons of cons and festivals under my belt, I’m not a best selling author or some kind of important public figure, but after a lot of years of self-training I can walk into just about any room and feel comfortable and happy.
There are no easy tricks or tips to bursting out of your cocoon and developing social prowess but I do have some wisdom to share that I’ve gathered through my years of social faux-pas and f**k-ups. I want to inflict this wisdom on you in the hopes that if you’ll be attending the Creative Ink Festival, or any other SFF con, or any social event, you might feel a little less uncomfortable and have a little more fun.
1. Keep busy/stay involved
When it comes to social situations, there is nothing worse, in my opinion, than being around a big group of strangers and having nothing to do. Solution? Read a book!
*angry buzzer noise*
The chances of someone striking up a conversation with someone they don’t know while said stranger has their nose buried in a book? Ha ha ha! Ha! You need to stay busy without putting up the invisible STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM ME sign.
At cons or festivals, the simplest solution is to volunteer. Heck, most cons and festivals are always crying for volunteers. Sign up! A nice person will give you a job, often a job working with other nice people. Even if you’re just setting up chairs or handing out name tags, at least you’re doing something. Later, at the bar, you might see one of your fellow volunteers and you can have a good laugh about how that stupid stack of chairs kept falling over. Next thing you know you’re talking about how you both play Magic the Gathering, and off you go.
When I decided to go to Worldcon in 2012, I had no idea what to expect and I knew zero people who were attending. This was my first SFF con ever. EVER! I signed up to volunteer. The jobs were easy—I stacked books on one day, signed people in to coffee klatches another day (I even got to bring Chuck Wendig a coffee!)—and I met a few folks and, most importantly, I didn’t have to spend my first day feeling completely lost and out of place.
If there’s a way to be involved in the event, volunteer. Hey, sometimes you also get free stuff!
2. Be the change
It’s hard to be the person who makes the first move in a social situation—that first hello, that first introduction—but, if we’re going to connect, somebody has to make the leap. If you’re the person sitting all alone, hoping someone will come say hello, and you spot another person sitting all alone chances are they may be waiting for the exact same thing. Make the leap.
Look, this will sound harsh but it’s not everyone else’s job to welcome you. Social connections are a 50/50 deal. If you expect other people to connect with you, sometimes you also have to be the connector.
Furthermore, once you’ve made connections, once you find yourself inside the safety of a group bubble, then it’s more important than ever for you to be the one who initiates contact with the person sitting alone and maybe feeling out of place.
You may feel your social skills are non-existent but they are just that: skills. Very few people are born with high social IQ’s. Like any other skill, you can study, you can learn and you can practice. It may take years but—barring severe anxiety—if you really decide you want to be better at this social thing, you can be. Some of those goofy old self-help books actually have some stellar advice for how to make this happen.
Who doesn’t like to hear something nice about themselves? A genuine compliment is a crazy simple way to open doors and strike up a conversation. The key word here is “genuine” because if you really do like something about a person you’ll probably have more than one sentence up your sleeve, which is exactly what you need for a conversation.
Clothing or costumes are a great start for conversation at SFF cons because the wearer almost always has some interesting story behind their shoes/funny t-shirt/Dalek costume. That’s step 2: listen. Really listen. We’re attracted to good listeners, and it’s a skill few people have. Also, if you listen well, there will usually be an opportunity for step 3: engage.
So you’ve told me that you love my “Mew-bacca” t-shirt. Well done! (I love that t-shirt). I tell you how it combines two of my favourite things—Star Wars and cats. Aha! You also love cats. You tell me so and ask me if I have a cat. (Engage!) I tell you that, sadly, I do not right now because I’m too nomadic but I do foster kittens for the SPCA. “Wow! That must be so much fun!” you say. Whereupon I bombard you with kitten stories and…voila! Look, we’re having a conversation.
5. You’re more interesting than you think you are
During a conversation with my friend Andy Rogers (who I met at Worldcon!), we laughed about how we live in these stunningly beautiful locations (British Columbia for me, Alaska for Andy) but we’ve been here so long that we forget just how stunningly beautiful they are until someone from a not-so-beautiful part of the world comes to visit. There are all kinds of aspects of our lives that are interesting to people who are not us.
Think about the place you live, the job you do, the hobbies you have, your history, your education, weird experiences, and somewhere in there I guarantee there is something I will be curious about. You don’t need to be James Bond to be intriguing. At a workshop I taught recently, one of the participants told me that she likes to do social experiments. Her latest was that she was going to spend a year only wearing clothes that she “found”. Who does that? Fascinating! I had a ton of questions for her.
Don’t write yourself off as uninteresting simply because you’re not a bestselling author or a movie star.
6. Prepare for rejection
Some people are not going to like you. Some people are just going to be jerks. Some people already have a tight social group that they don’t get to see very often so they want to devote their time to those people. Some people are tired or sick or just overwhelmed by the con experience. Some people are at the con in a professional capacity and don’t have much free time for chit chat.
There are a thousand reasons why you may get rejected or ignored by someone at a public event. It will seem impossible not to take it personally but, unless you really are being a jerk, you can’t take it personally.
Easier said than done, right? Story time!
Back when I was getting started on the path to becoming a professional stunt person, the only way for me to get a job was to call up stunt coordinators and ask. Remember how I said that calling strangers to ask a simple question used to terrify me? Well, imagine how I felt calling up Very Important Strangers (I did not know most of these people) to ask/beg for work? It was a nightmare.
For every 100 phone calls, I might get one job. Maybe.
The constant rejection was never fun but it did get easier as soon as I realized that 99% of the time it wasn’t personal. (And that 1% wasn’t big enough to care about). If I had taken those rejections personally I would have missed out on a fantastic career and ten of the most exciting years of my life.
Rejection never feels good but it’s also not the end of the world. Allow yourself a silent pity party, then move on. Don’t let one or two bad experiences prevent you from having an amazing con and meeting new and wonderful people.
7. Respect conversations in progress
Sometimes timing really is everything. The same person who may be delighted to meet and talk to you at another point during the event may be deep in a serious conversation that they would rather not have interrupted when you approach them. Part of the social learning curve is learning to read body language and subtle cues—this can take time but it’s good to be aware of.
8. The buddy system and social media
One of the benefits of social media is that you can get to know someone before that first awkward social interaction. I may have known zero people in real life before I went to Worldcon in 2012 but I did know a few people through Twitter. One of those people happened to be the very person who is hosting the Creative Ink Festival!
One little Twitter connection and a handful of online conversations would make all the difference to my con experience. Having even one person you know—even if “knowing” them consists solely of a handful of 140 character exchanges—could change your event experience from lonely and unwelcome to fun and friendly.
9. Take responsibility
Public social events are merely a platform. Some organizers do a better job than others to make sure guests have a good time but ultimately what they are providing is the opportunity for a “possible” good time.
Every December you see ads for big, fancy New Year’s Eve parties. These events usually cost an arm and a leg but the posters and ads look and sound sooooo glamorous! How could an evening like that NOT be fun? Easy, stick a bunch of strangers, with nothing in common except fancy clothes and enough disposable income to afford a ticket, in a strange place and watch them try to make small talk until midnight. Snore.
When I go to an event of any kind, I always have a Plan B in case it’s not my scene or I don’t enjoy myself. That could be as simple as treating myself to dinner and a movie, or soaking in the hotel tub while reading a good book. I accept that the only person responsible for my happiness is me.
Arrive at an event with no expectations, place the responsibility for a good time squarely on your own shoulders, prepare to take a few leaps of faith when it comes to socializing, and your odds of enjoyment will increase dramatically.
10. Look for the goofy grin!
Finally, if you find yourself at an event that I’m attending or presenting or blue-penciling at, come say hello. I’ll be the one with the goofy grin, probably laughing and/or talking about cats. If there is a person you never have to worry about being snubbed by, it is me. I love meeting new people and I talk to anyone. Seriously. Even if I don’t have a ton of free time, I will at least offer a friendly hello and that trademark goofy grin.
If you will be at the Creative Ink Festival, here’s my schedule. (*Updated for 2016) See you there!
If you’ll be at Sasquan in Spokane, Washington this August, you will likely find me at the bar. Same goofy grin but with bonus martinis. Hopefully you won’t meet Sheba but if you do please accept my apologies in advance. (*Updated: Sasquan was fantastic! Hello to all the new friends I met there! Hopefully I will be able to attend World Fantasy 2016 and I will see you in Ohio in October.)
Got a suggestion for being comfortable at a big social event full of people you don’t know? Share it!