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On not making assumptions

June 27th, 2016
safety, contra  [html]
When people start trying to codify social interactions it's common to end up with rules that seem on their face like a reasonable description of what we should all be doing, but actually involve a major reworking of how people interact. For example, I might notice that lots of things that go wrong at a contra dance involve people making assumptions:
  • I might assume from your gender presentation that you would want to dance the "lady" role, and respond by taking on the "gent" role, even if we would actually both be happier dancing the opposite roles.

  • I might assume from your age that you would enjoy a very flourishy dance, and try initiating different variations at every opportunity, when actually you prefer the trance-like feeling of doing the dance exactly the same way over and over.

Assumptions seem bad, so I propose adding "don't make assumptions" to our list of how people should interact at dances. Except it turns out that things are more complicated than that. For example consider a dancer who gets dizzy very easily and needs to not go around more than once in a swing. A "don't make assumptions" approach here would be "don't assume anyone wants to go around more than once in a swing, always confirm with each new dancer you encounter that this is something they would like to do". The problem with this is that a swing is only 4-8 seconds long, and a discussion to consense on a mutually satisfactory speed could easily take a large fraction of that time.

What would work better in this case would be something like this dancer (a) wearing a button saying "please swing slowly with me", (b) physically signalling that they don't like to swing quickly, (c) physically disengaging if it seems like the other person hasn't picked up on this, and (d) verbally asking people to stop if that seems like it's needed, combined with a culture where people pick up on and respond to those signals.

The mindset I would like to encourage is one of being attentive to how other people are presenting and reacting. People have varying preferences, and if you dance with everyone the same way you're missing cases where some people would like more of a thing and others would like less. You can discover what people like by watching them when they're dancing with other people (it looks like they mostly dance gent), by trying a little of something you think they might like and noticing how they respond (I start raising my hand, they push down slightly to indicate they don't want to twirl), and by talking to them (do you have a preferred role?). The more you notice variation in the community on how people feel on an aspect of the dance, the more important it is to be active in figuring out what the person you're currently interacting with wants. [1]

(This is on my mind because I've started thinking about whether BIDA should have some sort of code of conduct or safety document, and had a go at drafting one.)

[1] Conversely, the more your preferences differ from the rest of the hall the more important it is to signal that in your appearance and actions.

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