This weekend I went to MystiCon in Roanoke, Virginia to be on some panels and do a reading and hang out with Michael M. Jones, an editor/writer friend of mine from way back whom I have actually never met before. I wasn’t sure what to expect, my con experience being pretty limited, but I had a fantastic time. I was on some awesome panels, I made new friends, I did some promo that didn’t make me feel incredibly dirty… All in all, it was about the most I could ever hope a con would be.
I also realized something about myself – not exactly a revelation, because it’s more like a hypothesis that I’m testing and confirming every time I do a con: While I tend to be incredibly introverted and subject to sensory overload, I am also capable of performing – and enjoying – intense periods of extroversion.
(This is one reason why I get very impatient with the construction of introversion/extroversion as binary personality types with no overlap. While everyone has different capabilities, comfort zones, and skillsets, people are just not that simple and modes of social interaction are highly situational.)
It wasn’t always this way for me. My first con, about three years ago, was Wiscon, and while it was a great experience, I also spent a lot of it feeling lost and awkward. I was not confident and I was not in my element. Capclave the following fall was the same. That’s usually no longer true: in cons in general I tend to feel confident, and I adore being on panels. I think this is attributable in large part to two things – my teaching experience, which has helped me develop the ability to get up in front of a large group of people and talk for an hour about anything I’m interested in, and the trajectory of my writing career – but there’s also something else going on, and I think a lot of it is just that I’m working out how to do cons. So here, in case these tips will work for anyone else feeling uncertain, is what I think has worked for me.
Note: These will clearly not apply to everyone, especially people who experience greater difficulty in social situations or who feel unsafe in those same situations for any number of reasons. Again, this is just what’s worked for me. Use or ignore in whatever way works best for who you are as a person and what context you find yourself in.
- Where possible, practical, and safe, make YES your default answer. Someone asks you to volunteer? Do it. Someone asks you to go to dinner with their group and you have no other plans? Do it. Someone asks you to be involved with the con in some other way? If you can, do it. Getting directly involved with things is such a great way to meet interesting people and feel more comfortable in the actual space of the con. Doing things makes one feel more confident in themselves.
- Be willing to talk to anyone, provided they are not making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. At any con, there are people who, for whatever reason, you might not interact with in the normal course of your everyday life. Maybe you feel like you don’t have much in common with them. Maybe you’re not sure what you would talk about. Nevertheless: if someone seems interested in talking to you and they aren’t in any way a creeper, diving into a conversation with an open mind can open so many social doors. You might make a friend you never would have otherwise. You might make a cool professional connection. You might just learn something new. Yes, a lot of the time this might end up being at least a little awkward, but:
- Be okay with awkward. I think the majority of people at cons are sort of awkward. Cons themselves are often weird, awkward spaces. I think a lot of us are socialized into a terror of awkward, but awkward is okay. Awkward can even be a cool thing to bond over. When we’re all aware that we’re awkward, we all take ourselves a little less seriously, and that can be a great way to bust past social barriers. Don’t sweat it. Be awkward. And be forgiving of others who also are.
- Have a Con Buddy. I can’t stress this enough. If you know someone at the con pretty well or you’re going with someone, or your roommate seems cool, establish a thing where, when in doubt, you can latch onto each other for various kinds of support. It can help so much. I think this is actually a safety thing as well as a comfort thing; you ideally want to have someone who can help watch your back and be with you if something gets difficult.
- Assume that you’re an interesting person and people want to talk to you. I know – believe me, I know – that this can be so hard. I struggle with massive amounts of self-doubt and inferiority and I always have. My impression is that many of us do. I often go into a situation stricken with the certainty that no one in their right mind would want to interact with me. But it’s not true. You’re cool. You’re interesting. Your presence might just be a gift to someone. Don’t be a jerk, don’t be creepy, and gracefully go away if someone is giving you Go Away Signals, but don’t sell yourself short before anything even happens. Don’t listen to the abusive voices in your head. Part of loving yourself is resisting the idea that no one will like you. We should all try to be kinder to ourselves in general, and this is part of that.
So those are my Con Lessons. I’m still learning them, but as I familiarize myself with them more and more, I’m having a better and better time at cons. If you see me at one, come say hi. You might just be doing me a favor.