Weddings and the wrong kind of involvement

I think I’ve established that social initiative is like any other kind of initiative: it’s valuable because it’s not the default behaviour and because it requires energy and work. Also: it requires empathy and interest. Generic “polite” behaviour also involves (real or fake) empathy and interest, but in a reactive way. But sometimes people mistake one for the other:

He’s glad you’re getting married. At least, he’ll say he’s glad you’re getting married. He’s glad (or fake-glad) enough to come to the wedding. But asking him to decorate bunting… that’s starting to push the boundaries past generic, reactive social engagement. And some requests push the boundaries much further.

Expecting the wrong kind of involvement is a common mistake for soon-to-be-married couples. You figure that everybody coming to your wedding matters a lot to you and cares about you; therefore they must be prepared to join in with thinking-outside-the-box wedding activities. If they’re happy to come to the wedding, of course they’ll be happy to make micro-decisions, take part in minor acts of creativity and take social initiative. They’ll write something cute in your guest book! They’ll send in a photo for that slideshow thingy you’re compiling!  They’ll choose their own songs for the disco! They’ll mingle with the other guests!

When you make this assumption, you forget that this kind of stuff is offputting for many people. Sure, it’s a joyful, special occasion, but that might actually increase the fear and tiredness they feel when looking at the blank page of your quirky guest book. What do they write? How do they know if they’ve got it right or not?

It’s the same kind of fear and tiredness that stops people getting on a bike instead of into a car. The fear of making yourself vulnerable, doing something unexpected, maybe getting it wrong and wearing yourself out in the process. It doesn’t help that our society, and our education system, trains people to feel like this.

If you work in a creative industry and/or mingle in certain privileged circles, it’s easy to forget that many people are pushed out of their comfort zone by minor acts of creativity or initiative. Think about the number of people you know who run their own business, who work in creative fields, who regularly speak at conferences, or organise conferences, or put original content on the web for the heck of it. Now think about your extended family and your parents’ friends. Do any of them do this stuff, ever?

Also, talking to new people? Wedding guests generally don’t want to do it. I naively expected that everybody at my wedding would be simply delighted to meet everybody else. I thought my wedding would be a place where people met and bonded with each other.  Afterwards I felt slightly hurt that most guests only spoke to the people they already knew and didn’t attempt to introduce themselves to strangers. It was a combination of Geek Social Fallacy #4 and a wild overestimation of my loved ones’ social initiative.

Wedding guests are, by and large, happy with weddings always following the same pattern. They’re happy to stay with the people they know and have a day that fits the usual format. They’ll admire quirky touches, but once you start asking for active involvement, expect resistance.

But you can reduce the fear factor and get more people involved  by introducing formal constraints. Think about what you’re asking. Instead of the blank page, try Scrabble tiles, as some friends of mine did. Sure, ask people to pick songs for the disco but accept that only a tiny proportion of guests will actually do this, and the DJ will ignore anything obscure in favour of “New York, New York” anyway. Go for colouring-in over drawing.

I’ll finish with a cautionary (true) tale of a bride who expected too much creativity. She asked her matron of honour, who she thought was a creative type, to “write a poem for the wedding”. The matron of honour spectacularly misunderstood, found an existing poem by a famous poet and… wrote it. As in, copied it down. Admittedly, she copied it down in fancy calligraphic writing onto a scroll-y thing, but the bride was upset because she’d been hoping for an original poem specific to her own wedding. But what could she do? She did what I’d hope any soon-to-be-married person would do when faced with a response which wasn’t what she’d hoped for. She took the poem and thanked the matron of honour with as much sincerity as she could manage.

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