Ridding our social cosmetics off

I joined a Community Design event held in Tainan, sponsored by Service Design Kitchen. In a quiet basement room inside a boutique hotel, 20-30 chairs were awaiting visitors too eager to escape into dried area away from the roaring typhoon outside. I scanned the room: papers, writing boards, and food (yes). But there was no agenda list, no podium, no gadgets. I had seen similar setups before: addiction recovery program, group therapy, religious sect gathering. Hmm.

The event began, still without a fixed agenda. Then the wondering audience, us, were each handed a piece of paper and pen, and were told to write something we wanted to discuss with others. Only then we realized why there wasn’t a host or a speaker. WE were. Mildly panicked, one by one we start to note down…something.

And surprisingly, for many people it wasn’t difficult to find a topic in his or her own. We spend our discussion life dealing with either intimate secrets or someone else’s demands. We rarely have an opportunity to talk about something that matters to us personally, but also something that needs to be shared with others. The psychological niche spoke itself out of the paper, and soon agendas were posted on the wall over green energy, co-housing, design, politics, education, etc. Personal, but not private. Large in scale, but close in (emotional) distance.

Then we broke apart in small groups, and started to…just share. Everybody was allowed to join any group any time (they were even allowed to go in and out of the venue). In short, the audience created the event from scratch. Of all “guidelines” introduced for smooth discussions, this was my favorite: Whoever present at any moment is the right member. If you don’t want to contribute by talking or listening, just go elsewhere and have fun on your own. No obligation, no punishment, only willingness and respect.

By the end of the day, dozens of discussions were held and the resulted notes were proudly posted on the walls. Now, were there any breakthrough? Honestly, no. Most of the talks might have been ended little more than a coffee break chatting. If we measured the event by its “progress,” it was a failure.

But there was something strange happening for a “failed” event: Nobody was leaving the venue immediately. Everybody was busy talking to each other, completely engaged to the place and the people. They did not want the day to end.

We were exchanging contact information and talking about when to meet up again or do something together. Most of us met each other for the first time, but after only a half day of discussions, we all felt acquainted, or maybe befriended. No “networking” events had better success, in my experience.

I wondered why the discussions worked so well to connect people. And I believe because it wasn’t about connecting. In the event notice, during the introduction, nobody mentioned about “connections.” We were all there to talk, listen, share, or do something. Also, there wasn’t a preset agenda given by the organizer, or even ourselves. Everything we discussed was given birth on the spot, according to what was in our mind at that day. The event was structured but was plan-less—that was another reason for fostering the rapport.

We were not forced to do anything: everything in the event was designed to encourage ourselves, to take something that had been lingering inside us for a long time and release it into the world. The lack of obligation to participate in anything prevented any discussion from plunging into emotional turmoil or debate-duel.

By the end of the event, we we no longer wearing masks, looking for “business opportunities” or maybe “friends.” We were all talking about and revealing something that we truly cared about, and that authenticity was the reason we could “find” each other in a more profound manner than our usual interaction.