Day: May 6, 2010

Culture Comparisons

A couple of people we met during the course of Penguicon had also visited Salt Lake City. They talked about the “weird vibe” they felt there. Howard laughingly compared it to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and both times the person laughed and said “That’s it exactly.”

Since those conversations I’ve been pondering how I feel about being a participant in a culture which feels like Invasion of the Body Snatchers to those outside it. There is a significant homogeneity to LDS/Mormon culture. It comes from shared religion and shared neighborhoods built into tight knit little communities. In many ways, Utah is like hundreds of small towns all smashed up against each other. You get the in-everyone-else’s-business nosiness of interested neighbors along with the benefits of neighbors who watch out for each other. From the inside, this culture feels very safe and predictable. People raised there are often afraid of what may lay outside. This is unfortunate, because outside are a lot of amazing people worth knowing.

Human brains are wired to pay attention to things that are different from what they normally see. This is why a visitor comes to Salt Lake City and may feel uncomfortable. The locals are acting in near unison according to social norms that are foreign to the visitor. This same discomfort happens to me when I visit elsewhere. At Penguicon I was bombarded by social situations which were just slightly askew of what I am accustomed to. Add to that fact that I moved through several different social circles within the convention, each with it’s own rules. I spent time with writers, with webcartoonists, with Con com staff, and with Aegis. In passing I saw a dozen other social groups. It really was a lot to take in and analyze so that I did not commit any faux pas.

Upon returning home, Howard and I had the opportunity to describe the convention to people here in Utah. I quickly realized that my descriptions were creating a much wilder picture of the convention than was actually true. The truth is that I’ve seen the same sorts of silly/fun/play behaviors here in non-drinking, strict dress-code Utah as I saw at Penguicon. The costumes are different, but the desires to relax and be accepted are the same.

I do not believe that everyone can just get along with everyone else. I know that there are fundamental conflicts of belief which people need to fight for. But I also believe that there is far more common ground to be had that some people are willing to admit. I have to believe in that common ground, because I found comfortable places at Penguicon and I am wonderfully comfortable here at home in Utah. Part of me thinks it is strange that this should be true. But mostly I am just glad of it.

My Conversational Habits

In the comments to Howard’s recent post about Penguicon, I am called “charmingly quiet.” This description amuses me. I don’t think of myself as a particularly quiet person. I certainly do not feel shy. Inside my head I am actively participating in the conversation, it is just that most of my thoughts don’t get spoken aloud. I tend not to speak up unless I feel like my thoughts are unique or a viewpoint which is otherwise unrepresented. The larger the group, the less likely this is to be true. In smaller groups I feel a greater responsibility to help keep the conversation alive, and I am more active about finding ideas to add.

On Friday night I spent several delightful hours speaking with fellow writers. At first the group was small, only four of us, and the conversation was shared pretty evenly by us all. As people drifted in to join the group, the conversational dynamic shifted. People like Mary Robinette Kowal, Patrick Rothfuss, and Cherie Priest took center stage as they began regaling the rest of us with amusing anecdotes. I felt a brief desire to be able to do that, to fix the attention of 10 people and tell a story that has everyone laughing uproarously. It is a skill I could learn. I could learn it from Howard. He does it all the time.

Then I remembered the time at a party when I was participating in a smaller conversation at the edge of a large group. I began telling a story which fell into one of those random conversational pauses. Suddenly I discovered that I had the full attention of everyone in the room. It was rather alarming. I was telling a story that was two people funny. I didn’t think it was 10 people funny. The consequences had multiplied if my story fell flat. It didn’t, but neither was it a hilarious success.

The truth is that my conversational strength is not in entertaining large groups. My strength is conversations with small groups of people who are talking about things that really matter to them. On the tail of this realization, I also recognize that this is one of the reasons that it is important for Howard and I to spend some of our time separate at conventions. He shines while regaling stories in large groups where I tend to be charmingly quiet. Sometimes I want exactly that. I love listening to Howard tell stories. It is restful to be a semi-anonymous observer in a conversation. But it is also important for me to have identity and friendships separate from him.

Knowing all this about myself has taught me to watch for the quiet people in conversations. They are not quiet because they lack interesting thoughts. Which is one of the reasons I love smaller conversations. I love listening to people who spend a lot of time observing. I’m also very impressed when I’m around people who have a sense of conversational balance. These people will realize when someone has been quiet and try to draw them into the conversation. I am most impressed by people who can story tell for large groups and then turn around to draw out quiet observers. I was in excellent company at Penguicon, those storytellers I listed above. They did it all.