On In-Person Events | Issue 6
by Kathryn Mockler
The response to this tweet to it got me thinking about what it used to be like interacting at literary, film, and art events, conferences, and festivals.
I’m sure I’ve unintentionally caused harm—reintroduced myself to someone I’ve met before or not introduced someone because I couldn’t remember their name or looked around the room nervously which could be interpreted as looking for someone else to talk to. I’m stressed at social gatherings, and if I’m one of the readers it is impossible for me to converse beforehand which is why I usually hide in the bathroom until the event starts.
Given my own social anxiety, I try to look for good intentions in most people. And if I sense that their behaviour could be operating out of something other than ego and careerism, I will give the benefit of the doubt.
However, some people mistakenly believe networking is about what they can get from another person and talking to whomever they think is the most important person in the room about themselves. They will monologue at you or recite their CV when you say hello. They won’t ask you any questions or if they do, they won’t pay attention to your response. They nudge you out of a circle or turn their back on you when someone better comes along.
Many years ago, I was at a literary event and one writer actually counted how many people he talked to, and labelled each person according to their role like it was a treasure hunt. I’ve talked to 15 poets, six fiction writers, five editors, three publishers, two interns and so on.
At an art opening, an artist once commented on how I wore the same outfit to events. She joked that it was “my uniform” in front of group of people and everyone laughed. I was horrified. Because I was unemployed at the time, I couldn’t afford different outfits. Of course I went to the bathroom and cried.
At film festivals, some filmmakers will pitch their movie idea like they are pitching an agent or Hollywood producer to anyone who will listen. I’ve spent way too many hours nodding to some dude who was so in love with his idea that he failed to notice my eyes glaze over.
Why do people act this?
Stanford Business professor Robert Sutton studies corporate behaviour and why people are assholes. He wrote the book The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt.
He describes the different types of assholes in this 2017 interview with Diana Duong:
“There are strategic assholes, who treat people badly because they believe that’s how you get ahead. A lot of bullying research [points to] the classic high school dynamic. There are some people who are bullies because they’re part of the “in” crowd. The notion that you’re part of the powerful people and you’re pushing around the weirdos and the deviants, that’s one kind of asshole. And there’s the rebel-without-a-cause type who feels alienated and rejected. They tend to be lone jerks — you get that in organizations too, the weirdo in the corner going after everyone [who has] an anger management problem. Or you get someone at the top who pushes people around because they have more power. My favourite are petty tyrants … They push you around to make themselves feel more powerful. Often people behave like that because they’re in a position where they have influence over others but [feel] they’re not respected.”
Many of his observations hold true for literary, film, and art communities.
I don’t think I’ve been to an event in the past 15 years where I haven’t run into at least one of these types.
But Jerks Don’t Know they Are Jerks!
To make matters worse, jerks often don’t know they are being jerks. Apparently we have built in biases that prevent us from recognizing our own disagreeable behaviour.
When we behave in a disagreeable way to others, we rationalize our behaviour (like I did at the start of this post—if I’m a jerk it’s because I’m anxious). But others generally don’t give us the benefit of the doubt and perceive our behaviour as … assholish.
So no wonder bad behaviour flourishes at creative events! And no wonder they are so difficult to navigate.
Although I find these events hard, I have had good experiences too—mostly by connecting with other people who feel awkward or nervous. I’ve made some of my best friends in the literary and film communities by standing on the sidelines.
What Will In-Person Events Be Like?
I’m anticipating the return to in-person events with curiosity, and honestly with a great deal of dread.
If social interaction was difficult for many of us before the pandemic, what it will be like when we return to readings and other social activities?
According to psychologists, we may be “losing the ability to be able to easily connect with each other.”
“… psychologists say that the lack of everyday social contact could result in many once-extroverted people coming out the other end of the pandemic feeling socially awkward and anxious.”
I can’t imagine wearing a bra or having to give up my pajama bottoms let alone being in a room with people and having to talk to them!
My hope is that we will be kinder to each other and ourselves and a little more forgiving of what will surely be all of our social flubs and gaffs.
Kathryn Mockler is the author of five books of poetry and several short films and experimental videos. She’s the publisher of Watch Your Head, an online journal devoted to climate justice and the climate crisis and Send My Love to Anyone, a newsletter on all things writing. She co-edited the print anthology Watch Your Head: Writers & Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis (Coach House Books, 2020) and her debut story collection is forthcoming with Book*hug in 2023.
Issue #6 of Send My Love to Anyone
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