An amphitheatre
Photo Credit: Tony Hisgett

Public Speaking – Mean Girls, Peer Pressure and Whiskey

After discussing privately with a couple of people, my last post in this serial may have been misunderstood, and I wanted to clarify what I meant about the “mean girls” section.

The feedback on the serial has been overwhelmingly positive, which I’m rather happy about. At the same time, I argued that, as a new speaker, you feel peer pressure to conform to events and moments driven by cliques that can form in groups of road-hardened speakers.

It has come to my attention that my post may have suggested two things: that people that are speakers should not meet up with their friends whichever way they see fit at a conference, and that no one forces anyone to go anywhere. If I may, I’d like to clarify both of those points.

Of meeting with friends

It was never my intention to argue, in any way shape or form, that people attending a conference shouldn’t meet with their friends, that happen to be speakers, in whichever environment and formats they desire. It’s a perfectly acceptable use of people’s time, no one should have any say in what speakers do with their free time, and many only get a few opportunities to see one another and want to make the most of it.

At the same time, I feel that we are easily forgetting the user story behind my serial, which focused on introducing new speakers to the world of conferencing: “in order to meet people and feel welcome and involved, as a new speaker, I want to have opportunities to socialise with other speakers and attendees”.

When speakers that already known each other regroup around areas of personal taste, and in the case of whiskey and brews, often passion, they are spending personal time meeting with people they have already met and want to spend time with. When some speakers exclusively attend such old-boys-club, giving no opportunity for others to join in outside of those environments, then we have the problem of any club: If you’re not part of the club, you’re not invited, if you’re not invited you’re not part of the club.

Let me be very clear that a lot of speakers spend much time with people outside of those self-selective processes, but at the same time, no speaker would question facts when I recount the occasions I’ve seen speakers bugger off every night in closed groups, bypass both the speaker dinner and the attendee party, and having no interest and feeling no empathy towards newbies.

Don’t get me wrong, no speaker has any contract with anyone to be there with new speakers. it’s not part of the code of conduct (I’ve already explored how those are not there for that). I personally believe it is part of my moral commitment to bringing new and different people to our events, but I have nothing but an opinion on this, and it is a rule I apply by choice.

Here is my take on this: if we want more diversity and make people feel more welcome, it is partly my responsibility as a speaker to welcome new ones and to spend time with them in whichever format is the most welcoming to them.

On peer pressure

So, not every speaker consider that they have a role that goes beyond give the talk and spend the rest of your time doing your own thing, and that’s fine.

As a new speaker, it can reach the point where, to be with someone you heard about or admire, you have to join-in to events you may not feel comfortable attending, or you are just simply not invited because twitter. This is called peer pressure, involuntary but nevertheless very tangible. A group decide on their own agenda, and you join in to that or you do not join at all.

People that feel they want to spend time with new or unknown speakers will find ways to have both their private moments with friends, and other moments to discover new people. I think that’s a healthy attitude and as close as a win-win as you can get. Others will consider that anything outside of their own plan brings them nothing, and this highly individualistic view excludes many, by its mere existence and lack of empathy.

And this is where peer pressure exists. It’s hidden under the “middle-class straight man entitlement” to doing what they want in their own time with no impact to anyone, and yet many would want to be part of socialising moments but are not given the opportunity. Make them about whiskey, naked women, beer, gay clubs or formula 1, at the exclusion of all others, and with no other time given to other activities, we have made those exclusive, biased, and unwelcoming to those minorities we clamour to join our ranks.

I have been guilty, in many ways, of embracing this system. Yet, I now see many things I wasn’t sensitive to before, and realise that these things happened, and I’m uncomfortable about it. No one forced me to go anywhere, I forced myself, but I wouldn’t have had to if many environments had been more inclusive.

What can we do?

I have nothing against private events and moments from happening at conference. Over the last two years, I’ve grown considerably intolerant of exclusive approaches however. I respect everyone’s right, but i value providing other spaces for all new speakers, and attendees, to get themselves involved, be it that it is your contractual right or your moral commitment.

If we want to make the speaking and tech world more accessible, we have to find a balance between cultivating existing networking and friendships, and helping others come in and break our rules. Equality is not finding minorities at the last moment in your call for speakers, it’s understanding all the existing behaviours we have allowed to develop, and find alternatives. If we can’t do that, we’re not worth the minorities that have avoided joining us for so long.