Perceived Familiarity and Conventions

Convention behavior has been a hot topic as of late and admittedly, I’m not a person with my finger as on-the-pulse as some. I’ve been mostly fortunate, and that is in no way a statement on the things that happen, usually to women. I believe that people are targeted, harassed, and assaulted at conventions. I also have been told that I look like I’m going to murder people most of the time, and I believe that’s helped me dodge some of the most egregious behaviors.

Not that it’s been a smooth road, and how shitty is that? I can look at my upsetting experiences and interactions and understand that they’re not a fraction of what some women have dealt with, that I’ve been fortunate. The goal should be no women going through any of this, not making sure women go through as little as I have experienced.

In a different post about how to behave at conventions, somebody used the term “perceived familiarity” and I took a long time to think about that. When I did, I realized that most of the bad behavior I’ve experienced has been due to this idea, this assumption of familiarity when it’s likely the first time we’ve met in person.

If we’re friends on social media, you know that I like blue comedy. I enjoy bawdiness, dick jokes, and that profanity is my favorite part of the English language. So much so that I make up cuss words and insults on the daily and fling them joyfully out into the universe.

Maybe we joke, you and I. Maybe we tease each other and go for maximum wittiness, insult and hit on each other. Maybe I seem like a loud-mouthed, outgoing sort, and that’s how you expect me in person.

But when I sat to consider this idea of perceived familiarity, I realized that it’s about comfort, at least for me. I am comfortable in my home. I am comfortable at a computer. I am even comfortable on stage, holding a microphone, making dirty jokes. Comfort is what allows us to be ourselves, to be witty, make jokes, tease each other.

Guarding yourself takes energy and focus, and that’s how I perceive my social anxiety. And really, if you’re a conscious person, you’re filtered and a bit guarded anytime you’re meeting new people. Like at a convention. The ground you’re treading with each new person is unknown and it takes that focus and care to navigate that to solid footing, to find a zone of equal comfort with them.

This isn’t something unique to conventions, either. You don’t burst into work situations with new co-workers assuming you know them, assuming they think and feel and communicate exactly like you do. No. You start at politeness, a little filtered, a little reserved, until everybody gets more comfortable.

Because I have to be honest, I am at my peak level of discomfort at a con. I love them, I love seeing everyone, and I feel completely out of place and awkward the whole time.

And this is where the issue of perceived familiarity comes in. If we’re friends on the internet and you approach me with the same level of joking and friendly harassing we do on twitter, on Facebook, whatever, I’m probably going to wonder why you’re being a dick and then I’ll leave.

This came to a head once with a game designer I once admired. We were twitter friends and he took that to wildly rude and inappropriate places during a convention once, because he assumed what I was comfortable with online, from the comfort of my home, was the exact same thing I would be comfortable with in person, with somebody who was essentially a near stranger to me.

Dude can still go fuck himself in my opinion, and that’s what you risk: being on permanent Go Fuck Yourself with somebody.

This isn’t a hard thing to understand or enact and frankly I’m surprised by the amount of people who mess it up.

Start with kindness and be polite. Start like you’re meeting a new person. Start without projecting how you feel on everybody else. Start without trying to sell yourself on people and convince them you’re A Certain Person. Be yourself. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.

I see transgressions of this code a lot in stand-up. Somebody shows up, convinced they have to play the part of The Comedian the whole time. Honestly, I’d rather meet somebody who is nice off-stage, rocks it on stage, and is nice again off-stage, than somebody who thinks every single statement out of their mouth has to be a joke.

If you walk up to me and feed me a line intending to get a laugh, I’ll look at you like you’re off your rocker and put all my defenses in place. I can’t talk to you equally if you come off like somebody I can’t trust.

If I can’t trust you to be kind in our conversation, I won’t be comfortable.

If I’m not comfortable, I won’t be open.

And if you come up to me and open by cracking bawdy jokes, I’m going to assume you have no sense of boundaries and you’re not safe to be around. End of discussion. I will extricate myself and avoid being in contact with you.

Be somebody people feel safe being around. Actually, fuck that. Be somebody safe to be around. That includes making people feel safe around you.

This isn’t to say that blue humor is forbidden, but make sure the person you’re talking to is as comfortable as you are. And if you’re not sure, don’t go there.

None of this even touches on blatantly inappropriate behavior at cons—unwanted touching, cornering people, unwanted attention, hitting on people who are clearly uninterested (or in general, really, most people aren’t at a con looking for date,) and ignoring people’s body language and cues inviting you to fuck right off.

I really just wanted to, for now, address this one issue, the idea of perceived familiarity. I can not say enough to start at polite and kind and if people aren’t comfortable, stay there. You’ll never step in it, never make somebody feel like they have to flee your presence if that’s where you’re operating from.

Be the kind of person at a con that Mr. Rogers would be proud of.