Let’s start with a story…
The other day my family - my wife, my daughter and I - were out working in the garden. It was a good day for working outside and so there were also other kids from the neighborhood out as well, playing or doing some chore. My daughter, as things go, was paying more attention to them than to the garden and so my wife said, “Why don’t you go play with them?”
“But I don’t know them!” was her answer. My daughter is a great kid; quirky and sincere but she doesn’t have many friends and none in our neighborhood. So when the opportunity arises, we like to give her a little push; “Then introduce yourself.”
“They’re going to think I’m weird.”
“Alright, then try this,” I suggested, “First thing is to ask them their names, then give them yours. Then ask them about themselves or about what they are doing.”
Most people love to talk about themselves, given half a chance, but, “Why? Shouldn’t I tell them about me?”
“Nope,” and I looked straight at her, “Getting them to talk about themselves gives you a chance to figure out how weird they are before they figure out how weird you are…”
And when it comes right down to it, a lot of our various communities are weird. We’re full of our own little idiosyncrasies, our quirks, our social structures, our unspoken norms. Our standards, our rules. But by and large we also want to make newcomers feel welcome; they are our guests until they become part of our community or leave to find another.
With this then as a requirement, we should then consider our approach. Which then is more effective for the investment of time and effort? To learn about them as the person? Or for them to learn about us? I would argue that the first is substantively more effective; they are one, we are many. I would also suggest that, when faced with the idea of learning about the many - where they might be able to find their place in a community - many might instead choose to leave or lurk rather than invest the time and energy required to find their place. Thus the burden should fall on us to be welcoming, to inquire after our guest - to get to know them before they have to get to know us.
But is this a burden? Again, I would suggest otherwise. As in the example above, we would then have the opportunity to get to know them, to use our greater knowledge of the community in which we live to help them find their place in it. Or - occasionally - turn them away to find another. If we rely on the inverse, if we place the burden on them, it is easily plausible that we might well find ourselves with an unwanted guest who has now eaten all the ice cream and drank all of the good beer before ensconcing themselves on the couch to watch an endless marathon of some horrible show on premium cable.
Unwelcome but difficult to remove without effort.
There is more than that, of course. If we treat them as our guest, getting to know them, we can also get to know those that they know, though by proxy of themselves. This too can help us learn if this is someone we want to stay or who should go. There is also an advantage here given the purpose of our communities - role-player or game-player. By asking them about themselves, we can learn what they already know about what we do - and how they might contribute. It is also useful in that we can quickly move to teaching those who don’t know the ‘basics’ while not insulting the intelligence of those who have been there before.
Does this all sound simple? To ask about them before we go on about ourselves? Then good - it should be just as easy to put into practice…
How? Well, ’Hello! How are you? Welcome - why don’t you tell us about yourself? What brings you here?' seems like a good place to start…
…before they have a chance to figure out how weird we are.