[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how we talk to people. And specifically, how we ask other people to take their time, and their energy, and their attention, and do stuff that helps us out. And this is relevant to research, of course, because no one knows everything, and so chances are, you too, someday in the future, will find yourself wanting to ask someone for help.
There’s all sorts of ways to frame this that make it sound like you have to be overwhelmingly nice to make that work. But really, it’s not about niceness. It’s about consideration. And I was thinking this week about group dynamics of groups I’ve been around in the past – Pagan and non-Pagan – and how many of these are so very important.
Are you aware of the scope of what you’re asking?
“Help me understand this word in this context” is a much smaller question than “Tell me everything about your religious beliefs, practices, and how I can do them too.” You don’t really need to know that much about the topic to figure that out. If you’re going to ask really big questions, make sure the person is up for that, and has time and energy for it, and make it clear you’re aware you’re asking a Big Complicated Thing.
Related, do you actually give the relevant details? If you’re asking about a term, tell people where you heard it or came across it. (It’ll give them context to give you a better answer.) If you’re confused about something, explain what confuses you rather than leaving people to guess. If you’re looking for a magical or ritual solution, but you’ve got limits on what you can use, put them in briefly up front, so people can take them into account or ask for more details. All of those show that you’re treating the people you’re asking like people, not “give me an answer now” robots.
Do you remember you’re not the only thing in that person’s life?
I’m a librarian, I love helping people find info. And I do that particular kind of labour of love for one of my big hobby projects. One of the reasons I do it – and this is a thing that has people asking me to dig up info a couple of times a day, on average – is that the people who ask me are aware I’ve got other stuff going on. They check it’s a good time. They give me a little time if I say “Wait, middle of something else, give me five minutes.” It’s the times in my life where people take my time and energy for granted (and put demands on when and how I do things that make it hard for me to keep my other obligations) that make me cranky.
Do you leave space for other priorities?
Related to the above – I’ve spent a lot of time working on community, collaborative projects where one of the things that helps make that thing work is keeping in mind that it’s the *project* that matters, rather than any one individual person’s specific priorities. Yes, we work towards being able to do stuff for people in ways that work for them, but chances are, there will be times when the overall goal wins out over a particular preference. Recognise that it’s probably not someone’s only priority to answer your questions. (Even when I’m at work, where it is my job to help answer questions, I’ve got limits: I’m not going to answer them at 11pm at night, If I’m helping one person, I’m not going to be able to take 20 minutes to stop and help another person. There’s some kinds of questions we should not answer, like medical or legal advice.)
Whose timeframe is it anyway?
Sometimes, you’ll see someone come into a forum, ask one of the Big Complicated Questions (often with a wall of text, or lots of details, or sometimes with some very specific questions that require a particular background or expertise to do much with.) And no one answers them for a couple of hours, and then they make a sulky “Why aren’t you all answering me?” sort of post. Related to “People have other stuff in their lives than you” – well. People might be sleeping, or at work, or spending time with a sick loved one. They might be watching TV or petting the cat or knitting, to destress from a complicated thing at work. They might be helping someone else, with just as interesting and complicated a question. You get better results if you don’t throw random demands into other people’s timeframes, basically.
Are you clear?
One of the things one of my current group projects has been teaching me is how to be up front in email in a specific way. I am the queen of long posts, but that project is slowly (good thing it’s running for another 2.5 years!) teaching me to write shorter long posts, and ones where it’s easier for people short on time to do something useful with it. It’s a useful skill in all areas of life, really.
What does this mean about the Pagan communities?
Briefly, the impact for Pagans is even more so than for some other religious communities. We rely on a lot of gift-economy labour to make things happen. People to plan events, to run them, to do all the little bits that make a difference in them. On our forums and email lists and blogs, we rely on other people taking the time to talk about things that answer our questions. What makes those spaces work is some consideration.
And the more consideration we can offer each other – not niceness, not ‘you must like me’, but “Hey, you’ve got 24 hours in your day, and I’m glad you’re willing to share some of that with me” – the better things tend to work.