Social Anxiety at Large Conventions

Editor’s note: In the lead up to Gen Con 2017, Gnome Stew’s Head Gnome, John Arcadian, shared this story about his experience with anxiety and the ways he’s found to support others in the gaming community who might be dealing with their own anxieties at major events. John has kindly allowed us to republish it here, but be sure to visit Gnome Stew for the original and for all its wonderful tabletop gaming and game mastering content. If you enjoy this piece, you can also support Gnome Stew on Patreon.

It’s August 8th, 2017 and Gen Con is about a week away. I’m going through all of my pre-Gen Con rituals – planning for the Gnome Stew dinner at St. Elmo’s and the ENnies immediately afterwards, getting the books and materials for the games I’m running compacted into better traveling boxes, setting up the tech equipment for the booths of the companies I help out, cursing the fact that I haven’t planned for any games to actually play in, etc. One of the rituals I undergo is figuring out how to get my social up and actually enjoy a big convention.

Social Quandaries

I don’t have social anxiety the way some people do, but I get some when I’m gearing up for a big convention and I get a lot of social fatigue just thinking about them. I love conventions. I love seeing my friends and feeling the rush and excitement of the throngs of excited people around me. I enjoy walking as a semi-invisible face in the crowd and getting to people watch. I love all of these things, by the second or third day if I’m lucky. For me, the time before Gen Con, or any other large convention, is when I’m working my brain around what it is like to be at a big convention and getting myself built up to handle the throngs and the rush of people. I like people, I really do. If you meet me at a convention, you’d never guess that I get anxious in situations like this. I’m loud and talkative. I have a big, goofy smile plastered across my face. I often have a flask of whiskey tucked away in a kilt pocket that I share with friends while at parties. I stay out way too late and meet a lot of people. This is one aspect of my personality at a convention, but it’s one that has largely grown as a defense mechanism out of the fertile soil of anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong, this is part of who I am. I’m not putting on a big show, not completely, but when my anxieties kick in during social situations, I tend to move to the offensive rather than the defensive. I try to find a way to fit in and spend the energy building up inside of me and move it away from being self destructive. Like many self described nerds/geeks/outsiders, I’ve spent many years not knowing how to deal with social situations and being on the awkward, awkward fringes of many a conversation and social group. My teenage years were as awkward as the bowl cut hair that was still framing my head and my ability to hold a conversation was as blurty and nervous and fidgety as you can imagine, and this was in the time before being passionately excited about something nerdy wasn’t as acceptable as it is now.

At some point in my life, I decided to take that anxious energy about social situations and figure out how to channel it into something useful. I spent years of self reflection and gradual improvement, testing and learning new ways to interact with people. I used gaming as a way to test out different social voices and I watched what worked for other people and what failed and when I was feeling that nervous energy, I threw it into a new experiment in how to behave rather than let it pull me down. Some 20 years past my awkward teenage time, I can reliably pass for well adjusted and I actually feel confident in most social situations, but something like the tens of thousands of people at Gen Con and trying to juggle that with a busy schedule of meetings, games, and constant socializing can push me close to a null zero place on my social desire meter. Once I’ve gotten into the crowds and found my groove, I’m usually enjoying it a lot more and am more tired than just socially tired, but it takes a lot of brainspace and energy to push myself past my mental hurdles to not want to bail on Gen Con on the Tuesday beforehand.

I’m not telling you this so you know my story, I’m trying to mirror the story thousands of us have but can’t talk about.

Everyone Has Something They Can’t Readily Tell You About Their Anxiety

Talking about anxiety is hard. It’s hard in geek culture especially. Most of us come from mental places where we haven’t always been socially accepted. It’s hard to make yourself that vulnerable when everything is normal in your life, but when you’re in a giant venue with tens of thousands of other people, fighting against a tight schedule to maximize your time, and you barely have an inch of personal space, it’s not hard to understand how a person’s anxieties can be overwhelming.

I know many people who can’t make it out to conventions due to their anxieties, some of them professionals in the industry who rely on the networking and connections that a convention can bring. I know many people who have pushed past or channeled their energy to make it to the con floor, but find themselves needing to constantly retreat away from the crowds. I know many people who channel their anxiety into only playing a certain set group of events that they know and can be sure of the rules (social and game) so they don’t have to spend brainspace on anything new. I know people who are anxious about being harassed, or ogled, or groped and won’t wear the cosplay they made to a convention this large. I know women who just don’t feel comfortable around conventions because people can be assholes sometimes.

Look up Spoon Theory if you aren’t familiar with it.</em

The one uniting factor of all of these anxieties, for all of these people, is that they are invisible. No one will readily tell you about their anxiety, and in many cases they can’t. Talking about it is often a hit to social credibility, a token that you aren’t strong enough to handle your issues. No one wants to be seen that way, so often people can’t bring it up or signal that they are feeling anxious. This year, I’ve seen a lot of people online talking about the “rules” for interacting with them.

These are preemptive defense mechanisms to limit things that might drain them socially. While you might be a hugger, they may not be and ceding to your desire for physical contact may take a bit more of their spoons (or spell slots) than they feel free giving up. They may have problems saying it at the time, so they don’t. For some people, saying it on Twitter or Facebook as “rules” is an attempt to preemptively cut off some potentially anxiety inducing issues.

Help Others Out At Big Conventions

It’s nearly impossible to know what another person’s anxiety inducing elements are, and it’s also as difficult to know when they might be on the edge of their tolerance due to situations that have nothing to do with you. So, how do you help them out when they may not be able to tell you?

  • Be respectful of personal space, more so than you would be for yourself. Another person’s needs are different, so give everyone the space you think you need, but double or triple it. If you know you are a person who has few personal space needs, quadruple it.
  • If a person is giving off signals that they are nervous about something in the social situation, consider excusing yourself from the conversation but leaving it open to pick up later. Say “Hey, I hate to do this, but I need to get going to make it in time for a game, but if you are around later it’d be cool to pick up the conversation.” and give them a little time to recoup. This might be their chance to get the breathing and thinking space they needed, even if they didn’t have the “spoons”, or social energy, to step back themselves. However, this may not be what they need, which is why I bolded consider. The best way to become socially savvy is to shut up and analyze what is going on. Spend more time listening and looking for clues, and if you think that a person might be out of energy, make sure there is space for them to gracefully recharge. That may just mean having less conversation and more hanging out, it may mean letting them chill out on their own, but the way to figure that out is to watch out for their needs.
  • Signal your emotions and choices. When people are anxious, they are bad at reading other people and making big decisions. The “Hey, I’ve got to jet to make a game” may be interpreted as “this person hates me because I’m worthless!!!!”. That’s anxiety speaking. If you describe the mental or emotional reasoning that is dictating your actions, it will save them some brainspace trying to decipher it. “Hey, I have really liked talking to you, and I hate that I have to cut it short, but I need to make this game on time. I’ll catch you at the party later and we can pick up the conversation.”
  • Make sure another person has room to talk and to think. Sometimes you’ll be in a large crowd and someone will be really quiet. It may be that they can’t find a way into the conversation and they’re too nervous to edge some space for themselves. Try to open it up so that they have a chance to talk. One of my favorite party tricks is to ask everyone about their “favorite part of the week”, or their “weirdest thing they saw getting to the convention”, or “what was your best character death”. I direct this at the group in general, so that the person doesn’t feel like they are on the spot, but can have time to build their story. I make sure to play “GM” on the group and turn the spotlight their way once it seems like they are ready.

Overall, just be respectful, be aware of consent and don’t step on anyone’s boundaries, and watch people for signs that they may be having issues dealing with the crowds or social situations. Try to be a good friend, even to strangers, and make sure people have the room they might need to feel comfortable but can’t tell you about. Everyone has some anxieties that they can’t readily show, and those come out in bigger ways and large and crowded conventions like Gen Con. Do what you can to help them, even if it just means being aware of your own personal boundaries and trying to respect those in others.

Originally published on Gnome Stew. Republished here with permission from the author.

Photo by cyenobite