On Kindness and Conventions

I want to talk a little about kindness.

We like to think that geeks are kind, that geeks understand what it is to be outsiders, and so we open up our circles and are super inviting to everyone. But what happens more often is that once we find our groups, we jealously defend them to keep outsiders away. Once we’ve created an “us” we work even harder to define the “them.” This is one of the reasons that conventions have always been so excruciatingly difficult for me.

Last year at ConFusion in Detroit I came in when everyone else was already glommed up into their little circles and went straight back to the bar and got a drink with my spouse. He was like, “Why aren’t you saying hi to people?” and I was like, “I’m afraid. What if they don’t talk to me? What if I’m interrupting someone? What if somebody says something mean to me? If people want to talk to me, I will wait for them to come to me, then I know for sure they want to talk to me.”

Yes, for real. Last January.

And that didn’t change for me until WorldCon last August, when for the first time ever, fans literally squee’d and shouted and cheered when I walked into a room. I had folks tearing up and saying, “OMG it’s such an honor to meet you” and “OMG YOU’RE KAMERON HURLEY!” and all of a sudden after slogging away for nearly twenty years writing and submitting stories, people outside a small group of authors knew who I was, and I realized something had changed. I wasn’t on the outside anymore, even if I sure as fuck felt like a nobody.

I have argued with authors for years about the power imbalance between authors and fans. By the very fact that you’re an author, that you’ve had worked published, it puts you in a position of perceived power, even if you don’t feel powerful. And what you do with that power is important. But first you need to realize, and accept, that you have it and people have given it to you.

I went to my first convention in 2001, and had such a terrible time, and felt like such an outsider, that I didn’t go again until Wiscon in 2004. It was at Wiscon that I did finally find my people. And though those first couple conventions were tough, I eventually got to know more folks so that I knew a few people every time I went and usually had some folks to talk to. The icebreaker was generally my blog; people knew me for that. That said, most conventions remained a little cliquish. It’s tough to approach circles of people who all clearly know each other, or to say hi to people you aren’t sure even care about or remember you from the conversation you had the night before. I know how difficult conventions have been for me, and after WorldCon, I realized that I was in a place where I finally knew enough people that I could start to pay it forward. I didn’t feel powerful, but people perceived me that way, and it was time for me to start walking the talk I’d been spewing at authors for a decade.

So this weekend at ConFusion, I did what my spouse suggested I do, which is to wave and acknowledge folks as I passed them, even and especially when they didn’t respond. If someone didn’t wave back, I tried very hard to dismiss it and not take it personally. Most of the time, it’s because they didn’t see me, didn’t remember me, or were tired or otherwise goal-focused. I know I had to stop and turn and say hello back to people who I didn’t recognize at first. There was only one instance where I said hello to someone and I felt like I was ignored on purpose, but that dude is pretty weird anyway.

Most importantly, though, when I was out at parties, or in the bar, I opened up the conversation circle to people. This is probably the most important thing you can do at either of these events. There is nothing worse than hanging on outside the circle hoping to try and get someone to invite you in. Here are these people who’ve known each other for years, and you’ve been told to socialize at the bar because it’s so great to network! and all you’re doing is standing outside these circles of people with a drink, feeling stupid.

I have done that more years that I care to admit.

In fact, another author came up to a circle I was in at a party one night, and I widened the conversation circle to welcome him in, as I’d been doing with others all night, and he looked surprised and said “Thank you.”

“For what?” I said.

“For opening the circle,” he said. “Most people tighten up the circle when other people come up.”

“Are you serious?” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he said.

Unless you’re involved in a heated private conversation, please don’t do that, folks, especially if you’re an author here to meet new folks. Don’t close the circle unless you are seriously meaning to keep someone out who’s a known jerk or something. We’re all at these things to have fun. We have all been that person on the outside of the circle, and you fucking know what it feels like. Don’t do that to people.  I know it’s all terrifying. Just introduce yourself. Encourage everyone else to introduce themselves. Remember what it was like when you didn’t know anyone.

As my spouse often says, kindness costs you nothing. And it means the world to someone else. It’s the difference between having a welcoming and open community and a cliquish, closed community that does not grow and diversify. And if you’re talking the talk about building that better community, then you need to take the tough actions that will help you build that, even if it scares you.

There were, of course, plenty of things I messed up. I made a joke on a panel at the expense of another panelist, not realizing that we had no previous rapport and it might hit him the wrong way. I was saving a seat at a table at breakfast for someone and had to turn someone else away, when in fact what I should have done is pull another table together with ours to make the table bigger.  I can go on. And I did, of course, like we always do, jerking awake from a sound sleep Sunday morning in a panic that I’d committed a thousand social faux pas for which I would never be forgiven.

But, you know: you get up again. You plow forward. You apologize when necessary. You move on. You do better.

I have talked a lot of talk over the last decade. It’s my turn to pay it forward, and to help build the community I’d like to see, instead of just complaining about how shitty things are elsewhere.

Because there is no greater joy than seeing the reactions of people who’ve had their first amazing convention, and who tear up all the way home because in a single weekend they’ve found their people, they feel included, they felt like part of something bigger than themselves.

Be the change you want to see, right? I need to act like the author I always wished I would have encountered when I was twenty-one years old at my first convention. Every time I talk to some new person, especially those at their first convention, I imagine that I’m talking to somebody who is going to come up fighting through here just like me. I’m holding out the hand I didn’t get that first time. I’m opening up the circle.

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