I am halfway reading Priya Parker’s book “The Art of Gathering” and it has really made me question a lot of the norms that we have all around us how to gather.
For example, the piece I wrote last week about how to create more meaningful gatherings really struck a cord with many of my contacts in LinkedIn and Twitter.
Many academics in particular seem quite frustrated on how we still use the same conference formats and same workshop formats even if we know and have experienced that listening to endless powerpoints is not enlightening.
Leaders also need to be aware that some of the organisational norms might be outdated and need re-working especially in a world that is rapidly changing.
Etiquette vs. Pop-up rules
In one of the chapters, Priya reflects over the difference between etiquette and what she calls “pop-up rules”.
Etiquette is about norms that have been developed over time and that people share in a particular culture: the way you place wineglasses on the dinner table, fold the napkin, and do the seating arrangement.
Etiquette works well when you have people from same cultural background and they are happy with the way things are and don’t see the need to question why we do things in a certain way.
Etiquette is about traditions and how you for example behave at a workplace, and is very much about power dynamics as well.
Etiquette “aren’t the guidelines for this event or this month or this year; these are the enduring right ways to be. To practice these ways was to uphold a tradition” (p. 119)
Yet, our world is changing and so are the people that we interact with.
Most of us have moved around, work with people from diverse backgrounds and have many people in our circle of friends who do not share the same cultural background and with that, same norms and assumptions.
So while etiquette for dinner parties or conferences or professional groups is helpful as it enables people to share a space in a particular manner, etiquette is increasingly being questioned in many settings.
The difference between etiquette and pop-up rules is fundamental:
“Etiquette allows people to gather because they are the same. Pop-up rules allow people to gather because they are different- yet open to having the same experience” (p. 121).
Pop-up rules are about transparency, diversity and inclusion.
Unlike etiquette that requires very specific cultural knowledge and is often not spelled out (you are just supposed to know), pop-up rules are pre-set rules for a gathering that are made to known everyone.
They are also transient so often these rules are only specific to that gathering.
Great examples of this are for example Diner en Blanc, a global dinner party series that occurs all around the world with very specific rules (guests can only wear white, bring own picnic baskets including food, drinks, cutlery; no trash is allowed to be left behind).
The main point is everyone knows the rules and can act accordingly.
Birthday fivers: challenging the norm of presents
A more mundane example from my own life is my son’s upcoming birthday party.
Anyone who has children or interacts with children knows the insane number of toys that children usually have (especially in Western society), making life more or less cluttered inside and outside the house.
We do buy most of the toys from second hand store but still…
As I was contemplating on this, one of my good friends sent me a link to a different kind of party: fivers party.
This falls very much into the realm of pop-up rules.
The basic idea is that instead of people bringing presents to my son, each family would bring him five dollars and he can then go to the store with me and buy the toy that he wants the most.
It also has a sustainability angle: in a world where we have already so much, how much more do we need?
I was actually nervous about this because our friends are awesome and so are the gifts as well that my son usually gets, and there is the etiquette of birthday parties.
But I also know the number of toys we already have and that most of them don’t get played with everyday.
I spoke about this for a few friends, and put these rules into the birthday invitation.
And the feedback I have been getting has been overwhelmingly positive.
It also puts away the pressure to think what to get for a child, and puts the focus on spending time together, to celebrate his life to date and to focus on the gathering rather than the number or type of presents people bring.
As pop-up rules are about “trying stuff out”, I will see how this goes and report back.
Youth against the climate decision norms
In recent weeks, there have been quite a lot of commentary on the youth climate movement and the role youth can, or shouldn’t’ play, in climate change debate.
There are those who argue that action on climate change is not about individuals but about big businesses/corporations and that they should change, and then we would have less emissions and could curb climate change.
Although I fully agree that we need to hold governments and big businesses accountable, fundamentally I think this view is wrong.
Individuals can challenge the norms and lead change.
Look at the young people’s climate change movement on school strikes that was started by one person in Sweden (Greta Thunberg) simply by sitting on the steps of the Swedish parliament every Friday and calling for climate action.
This idea has encapsulated youth across the world, with the latest mass youth rally in Paris this week participated also by Greta (who arrived of course by train to France).
Politicians have commented that children should stay in school and leave this to grownups to deal with.
But these youths are actually challenging an age-old norm: that adults are the decision-makers and know best which decisions should be taken.
What the youth movement is really doing is saying that it is enough now with this norm and assumption about youth.
In this case, one individual’s idea (that of Greta’s, supported by her family) has led to a change in how young people perceive their role in the debate, and has given them an avenue to do something.
As someone who works daily on climate change, I can tell you that the news can get very depressing so good on Greta and her friends across the world for calling out more radical action and faster real decisions.
Challenging norms is about changing mindsets
Norms are all around us like Priya points out.
What fascinates me about challenging norms that it is about innovation really, about looking into different ways of doing things and being bold enough to deviate from the norm.
For example, why do we need to buy shampoo in plastic bottles?
Because that is what is available at the supermarket.
So we use the bottle and throw it away (hopefully in the recycling bin) but in the process we generate plastic waste.
What if we bought shampoo bars?
What if this was the norm and we would buy a shampoo bar instead that comes in a box made out of biodegradable materials?
Customer demand drives businesses in ways that we don’t often imagine.
So customers have a say if they choose to exercise their rights in demanding better and more sustainable products.
There are so many things that we can use to encourage sustainability around us but these require us to challenge the current norms about why things are done and why.
In the end, as this book also points out, challenging norms is about challenging our mindsets and what we think is “normal”.
I truly hope that “what is normal” is becoming a bold new movement towards being more sustainable, and that our everyday choices can reflect that.
And when it comes to gatherings, we should definitely search out those pop-up rules that enable us to have deeper meaningful conversations and connections with people around us.
Changing one meeting at a time.