The previous entry in this series on How to be Approachable looked at exceptionally pro-social destinations. Today we switch from satellite to street view and focus on how the physical characteristics of a closed space — and the positioning of people within it — affect the chances of conversational sparks flying. Time to bring out your protractors and put on your triangles.
Orientation (unfortunately not of the sexual variety)
Orientation, as in how people angle themselves relative to those around them, has a pronounced effect on whether extraversion takes place.
I was stuck in the tail end of a queue for a bar whose staff to guest ratio, like their cocktails, left a lot to be desired. The other people in line were all facing the bar head-on, their backs to the guests behind them. One military man, Brandon, was rotated 90 degrees around, pointing east relative to the bar’s north. Because of how he was turned, he noticed when another patron, George, joined the fray. Making eye contact, George acknowledged Brandon with a man nod, that upward flick of the head used by real men™ to acknowledge one another’s presence (c.f. man grunt). Since the only appropriate response to a man nod is another man nod, George responded in kind. Their non-verbal man dance continued, and soon it was only natural for George to say something, “This line is terrible… you been waiting long? I’m George by the way.”
Brandon’s open orientation afforded him the chance to exchange non-verbal overtures with people, like George, who entered the space immediately surrounding him. Absent these silent non-verbal negotiations, conversation between strangers becomes less likely. As such, a tiny geometric adjustment can bring great advantage when harnessing a room’s extraversion.
Whether standing or sitting, even people who flinch at the word “geometry” space themselves out symmetrically. A group of two will stand in a line, with one facing the other directly. A group of three will spread out as the vertices of an equilateral triangle. And a group of four will form a square. If you continue adding people, the shape approximates that of a circle, becoming rounder and rounder as its membership rises.
Now, the problem from the opportunivert’s perspective is that their starting position is outside this formation. If the opportunivert wishes to engage anyone inside these human walls, they must either tap their preferred partner on the shoulder (in the hope they’ll turn around) or shout over an intervening shoulder (to arrest the attention of their target on the far side). Let me assure you, neither action can reliably be performed with grace.
The next time you are standing in a closed human circuit at a conference and wishing for foreign company, experiment with breaking rank, such that you cause the shape to lose a side. Maintaining this new formation will demand continuous adjustment, because the rest of your group will reposition themselves to close it, becoming subtly distressed without knowing why. But if you can sustain the shuffle for long enough, you will observe that a random passerby will slow down, say something, and plug the gap, reasserting symmetry.
At any sufficiently large event, this phenomenon becomes a near social certainty, as predictable as the effects of leaving $50 on the floor at a train station. What might explain this effect? Imagine someone not currently involved in conversation walks by your open formation. Because of the gap, they can approach head-on, rather than from behind or by raising their voice, allowing them to maintain precious social grace. What’s more, the open formation permits of non-committal fly-by comments, after which the commenter can gauge the circle’s reactions before deciding whether to invest further. And, finally, being able to see everyone’s face minimizes the chance that the opportunivert accidentally crashes into conversation with their old high school nemeses Dastardly Dan and Dingbat Dave. By comparison, there are no such safety hatches when approaching a closed circle. One can only leap.
During my field study, I gate-crashed the opening party of a Digital Gonads – whoops I meant Nomads – Conference, held at the poolside bar of a hotel that seemed ripped straight out of Las Vegas. The conference-goers had presumably travelled with the intention of meeting like-minded people, and the evening’s opening party being ”first contact”, I fancied it an ideal observation post to see how, and especially, where initial acquaintance was made.
The first group I noticed was a trio, filled with friendly laughter, wearing vibrant dresses, and attractive enough to lure the eye but not so much as to scare it away. That plus the fact that they were in the minority of females at a mostly male event, they seemed destined for more attention than video tape evidence of Tim Ferriss (author of The Four-Hour Workweek) putting in more than 4 hours in a workweek. Yet, to my surprise, the girls wouldn’t receive a wink of attention all night.
The reason was as follows: Instead of convening near the event epicenter, the girls sat by the pool, which was closed for swimmers until the next morning. They were no more than 30m away from the other conference-goers, but the only way to reach them was by walking down a narrow, unpeopled passageway, a social vacuum of sorts. The figurative distance created a boundary, in that anyone wishing to meet them would inevitably broadcast their intentions to all onlookers. Once the path over was traversed, there could be no plausible deniability. You can’t exactly go to the pool, bend down, drag your index finger through the water, bring it under your nose, and announce, “YYYYEP. It’s chlorinated alright.”
Interacting with “peripherals” — people positioned at the periphery of a space — deters opportuniverts. Because the path over is so conspicuous, the extravert risks losing face ten times over if rejected and forced to retrace their steps. To boot, because peripherals may be on the threshold of a space, beyond which an unrelated gathering may be taking place, it isn’t always clear whether they belong to your in-group (e.g. fellow Python v3.7 conference-goers) or not (the unwashed scum at the Python v.3.6 conference). This uncertainty adds an additional risk of awkwardness.
Now compare peripherals to “centerists” — people who situate themselves right where the action is. At the Digital Nomad conference, the primary social tumbler was the bar. Unlike with the pool, there were plenty of good reasons to be at the bar, such as emptying your wallet, queueing, and — the unfailing favorite — having something to regret in the morning. Moreover, the sheer density of conference-goers near the epicenter created a natural circulation of people that was conducive to incidental mixing.
Unless based in the British Isles, not every outing will center on a watering hole. So how, in general, to figure out where the social epicenter is? “Other people are there” is a perfectly reasonable guideline, but let’s pretend you’re always first to arrive, even the times when you add in 40 minutes of meticulously planned lateness.
The boring and obvious guess would be that the social center is any popular shared resource. This explains the bar above, as well as the fertile social grounds found in youth hostel kitchens, sports bar pool tables, anď nightclub smoking areas.
A more intriguing theory comes from Sociologist William H. Whyte’s research. He uses the term triangulation to describe “that characteristic of a public space that can bring people together, strangers. It’s usually an external stimulus of some kind”. The linked-to article gives the example of a piano standing alone and unexpectedly on a pier. Amateur players tinker at the keys, and small crowds gather nearby to listen. Unsurprisingly, the piano was a “catalyst for conversation,” with stranger asking stranger to take photos or inquiring why on earth a piano was there (“Dunno… must be a stray.”) Furthermore, as Whyte puts it, “the real show is usually the audience; many people will be looking as much at each other as at what’s on ‘the stage’”.
Visibility, as you will see, is important for two reasons.
First, and acutely: If extraverts aren’t aware of your presence, say because you’re cowering behind a pillar in the backroom, then obviously they aren’t going to connect with you. Contrary to popular misconception, extraverts are not equipped with x-ray vision.
Second, and chronically: The longer you are visible to others in a space, the more you become a familiar — and therefore trusted — entity. A sense of solidarity is built up through nothing more than sustained presence.
In my personal life, I’ve noticed that a typical, if counter-intuitive, progression towards acquaintanceship is as follows: I show up at (say) a coworking space, am observed with squinty eyes by the old dogs, but leave without meeting. This repeats for a few weeks. Then, one day, both of us happen to be at some bar outside the usual setting. And it is here at this bar that we speak for the first time, as if escape velocity was achieved through the pleasant spark of recognition: “HEY you’re at Driftwood Coworking Space, aren’t you? I recognize you!”
Positioning oneself by the event epicenter, as already discussed in the section on “position”, clearly aids visibility. Added to that are a person’s visual characteristics. Tall people, quite literally stand out, along with those wearing certain colors. One study has proven what Chris De Burgh would have no doubt foreseen: Drivers are most likely to pick up ladies in red.
Beyond that, any large, colorful, or loud enough toy is sure to draw strangers’ attention. Try spending a day at the beach with a giant pink flamingo:
With the term “visibility”, I mean the quality of being noticeable, not just seen by the eyes, so let’s consider the other senses.
Generally, you don’t want to be smelled, unless either in possession of rare olfactory empathy in the application of perfume or you happen to be among this blog’s dearly beloved canine following. As for sound, I can relate that I have what can only be described as a fat voice. It has the advantage of allowing me to be found via echolocation at large venues but it has proven less helpful in the conduction of conspiracies. For better or worse, its volume raises both my profile.
Most interesting and risqué of the senses is touch. What if you’re felt before you’re seen? One friend based in the UK shared the following, on the condition that I pinky-swear not to tell anyone. “No problem at all, Diana”, I told her. Sometimes when she sees a man she likes at a crowded club, she walks past him, needlessly placing her hands on his side, as if to shift him aside and clear a passage. Another tactic is to stand side-to-side such that the sides of their shoulders touch, even though the available space didn’t quite demand such proximity. These incidental-seeming little brushes ensure that he becomes aware of her, even in bustling rooms filled with stimulation.
Not everyone who employs touch share Diana’s subtlety. Jason, recently married, was sitting with me on a sofa in a restaurant reception area. Towards us walks a stern-looking Russian spilling out of her evening dress, all while avoiding eye-contact and maintaining total silence. Having reached us, she turns to face away, plops herself down on Jason’s lap, and lights a cigarette.
Me: “May I ask you something?”
Me: “Did you notice there’s a large Russian lady on your lap??”
These examples involving touch could also be considered under “proximity”, the topic of the next section.
Above I spoke about how conversational partners arrange themselves in symmetric formations. Strangers in public spaces also have a certain way of arranging themselves, this time the tendency being to maximize the distance away from others, as if playing a game of Marco Polo where the center of the room is “it”.
If we both boarded a subway carriage and I sit in the top-right corner, then chances are you’d sit in the bottom-left. Divergences from these positional norms – i.e. towards one another – often carry information. Sometimes this pertains to the space itself, e.g. if a drunk peed in my corner, I’d relocate to join you in yours. But absent any external drivers, my movement may reveal my feelings towards you.
I dig the social aspect of youth hostels but am less keen on sharing dorms with what – invariably – turns out to be a snoring bassoon player who looks like they moonlight as a UFC cage-fighter. And so, I hatched a plan to partake in the social pleasures of hostel life without the tortured night’s sleep. Together with some recruits from my friends, I booked into a hostel ten doors down from my apartment. We traveled light, so light, in fact, that we didn’t have a single bag or travel document between us, a detail which the hostel staff received with some trepidation.
After checking in, we began drinking in the large communal hang-out area. The night being young, we had the place to ourselves. Presently, a pair of Austrian girls arrived – and here’s where the story gets back on point – they sit down on the table immediately adjacent to ours. Their choice of table stuck out, since the room was practically empty. They had violated the distancing norm. Perhaps wary of seeming too eager, the Austrians kept their backs to us, acting as if they hadn’t noticed the raucous ruckus erupting behind them.
Ten minutes later, our most exuberant member, Lorenzo, was on way his back from a bathroom break and passed by their table:
Lorenzo: “Hi….And you two came from?”
Lorenzo: *grinning* “I’ve always wanted to go to Sydney..”
Austrians: “… That’s such a dumb joke.”
Lorenzo: “Yea I know. Wanna join us though?”
Austrians: *Austrians look at each other with why-not faces* “Emmmm…Sure!”
I can’t say with certainty whether the girls thought of their proximity as indicating social interest or whether Lorenzo perceived it as such, but, regardless, the overall effect was potently pro-social. Even taking a totally reductionist approach, any two objects (be they gas molecules in a pressurized container or fake guests in a youth hostel) are more likely to interact when they’re nearby.
Proximity, tasteful and even flirtatious in one situation, becomes creepy in another. Four girls were exercising on the beach in Goa, India. They set up a circuit in an isolated corner, perhaps 400m away from the nearest human beings. Three or four minutes of bikini squatting later, two giant floating blocks of gel kicking around a football honed in on their whereabouts and resumed play meters away.
Although the blocks of gel certainly snuck in more than a peek, I don’t think this was their main motivation. Rather, they were looking for an in. This they would not receive. The blocks of gel were shut out, brutally, through the girl’s body language alone. Even if the girls could have located eyes within the floating masses of slick, they still wouldn’t have granted them a split-second of contact.
Realizing that they’d been served two massive red cards, the giant blocks of gel got bored and left, presumably to touch up their hair.
What was it that made the proximity above so uncomfortable? For one, the girls were exposed — covered in sweat, bodies arched in compromising positions, and with little clothing to hide behind. This probably wasn’t how they imagined meeting their prince charming. Aside from that, there seemed to be a cultural incompatibility and social distance — the girls were Swedish hipster-skinny professionals in their 30s taking a winter break, the boys were 19-year old over-muscled local beach-urchin types who thought kicking around a football while wearing shark tooth necklaces was sexy. You do the math.
This series is continued in Exhibition You, where the focus shifts towards things you can do to broadcast your personality from afar and make yourself that bit more enticing (or repellant) to strangers who might be considering coming over and saying “hi”.