Seeking the Grail: Pagan Events, Shyness, and Hospitality

Seeking the Grail: Pagan Events, Shyness, and Hospitality August 1, 2016

I’ve been traveling and teaching at a lot of  Pagan festivals and other events lately, so I’ve had the opportunity to observe the different “flavors” of events. One thing that I notice at events is how easy (or difficult) it is for new people to connect and become part of things. Now–my perception’s a bit skewed since I’m coming in as a guest presenter, but what a lot of folks don’t know about me is that I’m actually pretty shy.

I’m an introvert who has learned to adapt to traveling and teaching and leading ritual for large groups of people. However, if you drop me into a purely social context, I have a hard time with people. I deal with some low level social anxiety on top of being an introvert, so probably the hardest thing you can ask me to do at an event is go an introduce myself to people I don’t know.

Thus, I really notice it when a festival or ritual is set up to welcome new people and help them feel comfortable.

One aspect of Pagan leadership is in the function of hosting events. And one of the things I often talk about when I teach workshops on leading rituals is that rituals shouldn’t be “written,” they should be designed. Sculpted to create a particular experience. I have a background in a field called “experience design,” which applies to everything from designing websites and software to designing products or events. In essence, whatever you’re designing, you’re ultimately designing the interaction and experience someone has with that website/application/product/event.

And, Pagan events and rituals are no different.

Whether you’re hosting a small open discussion night at a cafe, or a public ritual, or a large festival or conference, hospitality is a part of that function. And yet, it’s also a function that is frequently forgotten. In the Pagan community, we’re typically running events with the volunteers we have available, and we don’t always have someone to manage the function of greeting guests and making them feel welcome.

And sometimes, our (very human) tendency to break off into cliques with people we know makes it easy to forget about the newer folks, or the shy folks, attending our events.

The result of that is often that long-time attendees (or regulars) feel really welcome, and reflect that on feedback forms. Newer folks, however, feel shunned or at least, not really welcomed. And the longer a group has run (or the longer an event’s gone on) the more difficult it can be to bridge that gap. Once your group or event has enough intimacy to develop “in-jokes,” there’s a barrier to entry for newer attendees.

an altar illuminated by small candles in an otherwise dark room
Photo courtesy of Shauna Aura Knight

Hospitality and Gracing

When I teach classes on ritual technique, I often talk about customer service and hospitality. “What happens when people arrive at your ritual?” I ask my attendees. “Did you welcome them, tell them where the bathroom is and what time things are happening? Did you smile and say hi?” I often tell the story of my very first ritual. I wasn’t Wiccan, more of a wannabe druid at the time, but I attended a Wiccan Beltane ritual. Everyone was broken off into their cliques, then suddenly the ritual started. Nobody had said hi to me, nobody explained what was going to happen. I felt like I was screwing things up. I was nervous, embarrassed, and after the ritual, everyone went back into cliques.

Now, years later, I’m a Pagan teacher and author and I have a lot better self confidence, but at the time, I was a socially awkward wreck.

And here’s a secret; I’m still socially awkward, I’ve just learned some coping mechanisms. However, at the core I’m still an introvert, I’m still shy. In fact, I’ve had experiences where I was the headline presenter at a festival and I felt too shy to go over to people I didn’t know and say “hi.” 

That’s something that most extroverts won’t ever intuitively understand, which is why it’s really important as an event organizer of any type–especially if you are an extrovert–to think about hospitality and welcoming people at your events. At Diana’s Grove where I trained in leadership and ritual facilitation, we had a specific leadership/ritual role called “gracing.” This was welcoming people who are arriving to your ritual/class/weekend intensive/festival, helping them get oriented, and (in some cases) facilitating introductions to other people. Overall, though, it’s a function that needs to be designed into any event.

Going back to newer folks who may have a harder time getting into the flow of an event, if you’re an introvert, if you’re shy, or if you have social anxiety, you’re not at all alone. There are some coping mechanisms that can help. While none of this is going to cure you of social anxiety, in some cases some of this may be able to help you attend an event. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Workshops at Festivals and Conferences

One challenge when I’m teaching workshops at festivals and conferences is that there is usually a line of people trying to talk to me one-on-one right after my workshop. And I really want to make time for each person, but in that time span I’m trying to talk to people and answer complicated questions on leadership and ritual facilitation, and sell books (which is how I pay my travel expenses to the conference), and I’m also trying to move myself and my books out into the hallway (or out of the workshop tent) to make space for the next presenter. These conversations are generally my favorite part of the event, but it does require a bit of perseverance on the part of someone who wants to talk to the presenter.

The point here is that after a workshop, the people who are the least likely to tough out a line and talk to me one-on-one are the shy or introverted folks who don’t want to intrude…yet, those are the folks that are often going to get the most out of some one-on-one time.  The level of awkwardness depends on the limitations of the event setup and how closely workshops are timed, if I’m teaching right after or if there’s a break, etc.

One way I’ve gotten around some of those logistics is if I’m at a festival where I’m also vending, I encourage people to come to my booth to ask questions or just chat. If I’m not vending, I try to hang out in hospitality suites or other public areas to make myself available for nerdy conversations on ritual and leadership. I try to transparently do this to help make space for newer/shy folks.

Hospitality Suites

Some conferences offer hospitality suites, and (despite the name) I find these to often be the most socially challenging places to visit. The first year I was at Pantheacon I didn’t go to many of them at all, because I didn’t know many people at all. And nobody talks to you unless they already know you. (It’s one of those socially awkward spirals of doom.)

The past couple of years I spent a lot of time in specific suites where I knew people, but I still tend to avoid suites where I don’t know anyone. I have a hard time introducing myself to people. Sometimes I’m way socially awkward, and the more nervous I am, the worse it is. (Seriously; I start making stupid jokes like I did in middle school. It’s a train wreck.)

I typically find that it’s easier to do the hospitality suites (or, if it’s a festival, the various bonfires, etc. if:

  • I’m already with someone. For whatever social reason, it’s either to break into the conversation when you’re already with someone else; people tend to ignore you if you’re alone. (Pro tip: Find yourself a “Wandering Buddy.”)
  • I know at least one person in the suite or have a specific reason to be there.
  • If there’s a class or a specifically themed meet-and-greet happening. At these times it’s often easier to feel welcomed because there are lots of new people there.
  • There’s someone there specifically greeting people and introducing them to one another. kind of networking online, but not necessarily in person. Good hosts are able to smoothly introduce people to one another so that you have at least someone else in the room to talk to and you’re not awkwardly hanging around watching, wondering why you’re there.

First Timer/Shy Folks Pro Tips:

Some general tips: It’s easier to meet people after the ice-breaker of a workshop or ritual. You already have a topic of conversation since the person was obviously interested enough in Topic ABC to attend.

If you’re unfortunately at one of those events that is just difficult to break into, here’s my number one social awkwardness tip: Breathe into the awkward. The first time you attend the event, you might be feeling uncomfortable a lot, and that’s ok. It’s ok to be uncomfortable. The first time I attend a new event, I know it’s going to start out awkward, but by the end of the day/weekend/week, I’ll have met a few folks and those connections will grow. That makes it much easier to feel welcome at the campfire/hospitality suite/ritual/whatever-it-is as you go along.

Event Planner Pro Tips:

There are a lot of ways to make an event more welcoming to newcomers and folks who aren’t as socially outgoing. In fact, there are ways to design your event to foster more community connection in general. Cliques are still going to happen, but you can mitigate the closing-off effect they have.

A few weeks ago at Summerland Spirit Festival in Wisconsin (just outside the Twin Cities) I saw a few things that really worked to build community. One was particularly innovative; it’s an outdoor festival in July, which means heat and sun. For the vending area, they had a large mesh canopy on huge tent poles. This covered the entire vendors row (two rows of tents with a walkway). In between the poles were benches. The canopy blocked a lot of UV and I really noticed the temperature difference. Because there was shade, I could sit outside my tent instead of being stuffed inside for shade.

And because the vendors were outside their tents, and there was seating, people stopped by and hung out and talked. In short–it became a community commons instead of just the place that people went to shop if it wasn’t too hot and bright.

At many other events people avoid the vending tents because it’s too darn hot. The addition of the canopies and the benches completely changed the experience of the vending area and made it a more welcoming communal space.

Summerland also offers a meal plan, and doesn’t allow people to have camp fires at their individual camp sites. (Camp stoves, sure. Campfires, no.) Because there was a communal meal space at the main lodge, and because most people weren’t running off to their camp site to prepare meals, people were sitting down to eat together and talk. The act of eating together in and of itself builds community. In this case, it provided ways for people who just met (or who hadn’t yet met at all) to sit and get to know one another.

By not allowing the campfires at the camp sites, and by providing nightly musical entertainment, the festival encouraged people to hang out in the more common areas of the concert and the central bonfire. I noticed that this definitely created a more cohesive place that made it easier for new people to hang out and connect.

EarthHouse Gather, another Wisconsin Festival, doesn’t offer a meal plan, but does offer several potluck meals over the course of the week. This, along with other group activities, allowed people to meet and connect whether they’d been there for 16 years or it was their first time.

Back when I was doing Reclaiming tradition WitchCamps, and the Diana’s Grove Mystery School, I took for granted the power of shared meal time.

Other tips I’ve learned from Diana’s Grove and other facilitation training include:

Have name tags/badges/name buttons for everyone, including your organizers. This levels the playing field and doesn’t assume that everyone knows everyone else. It makes newcomers feel like they are on the same level with the long-time attendees. It also helps everyone with names; if you (like me) struggle to remember names, nametags are a real blessing. Referring to someone new by name also helps them feel more a part of things.

Have some kind of introductory circle/event. While this surely isn’t possible at events of 1000+ people, at smaller events it’s worth the logistical wrangling to give each person a chance to introduce themselves. This works best in groups under 50. It can work ok in groups of 100-200 if well facilitated. (How to facilitate that effectively is the subject of another article entirely; comment if you’d like me to write on the topic.) EarthHouse Gather made this part of their opening ritual; I’d go so far as to say it was the most potent (and important) magical working of that ritual because it made space for the new folks to be seen and heard and welcomed.

Avoid in-jokes. This is probably more important for long-running groups and events. It’s not that you can’t have them, it’s that you don’t want to flood the newbies with all of your in-jokes because they become energetically exclusionary.

Leaders should also take the time to reach out to newer attendees. Your introverted leaders won’t be as good at this, but if everyone’s trying to at least say hi to some of the new folks, that goes a long way.

If you have a long-running festival like Heartland or Pagan Spirit Gathering, and there are specific camps (particularly camps that engage in loud activities late into the night) make this really clear on maps for new attendees. Also, ensure that such camps reach out to their neighbors as they are setting up to let them know, “This is drum camp, we drum until dawn,” or, uh. Other nightly activities that are known to take place at certain camps.

There are tons more ways to help include folks at your event. Got one to share? Post it in the comments below!

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