Thoughts on Belonging

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I’m writing this post (or maybe posts, I don’t know how much this will develop) not because I have answers, but because I have questions. The need to feel a sense of belonging is one of the more fundamental levels in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and has received in-depth attention as to how it operates in organisations in Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code. (And how this plays out in choral rehearsals is the subject of my article in Choral Directions from a couple of years back.)

So, the general understanding of what a sense of Belonging feels like, and how it is generated, is in place. My questions arise from my own experiences and conversations with friends about their experiences. It’s not a huge sample I’m working from, but it is big enough for some striking patterns to emerge; I’m confident that where I draw on my own experiences to theorise about wider things in this context that it’s not just me, other people have been through very similar experiences.

There are three contrasting scenarios I’d like to consider:

  1. Going to an event and feeling enriched by a strong sense of community and belonging with the other attendees.
  2. Going to an event at which other people report feeling enriched by this sense of community and belonging, but feeling like an outsider. As one friend put it, ‘there seems to be a glass screen between me and belonging’.
  3. Feeling like an outsider at an event, until someone does something that instantaneously converts that into a sense of belonging. The person or people who do this often go on to become long-standing and trusted friends.

My questions are thus around what determines which of these three experiences one will have at an event? At any given conference, training course, interest-group meet-up or whatever, a goodly number of people will experience scenario number 1. That is, after all the fundamental reason we go to things. For sure, the subject-specific stuff matters too, but we choose to go and do our learning and interest-development in person with other people in order to enrich it with a sense of community. If it were only the content that mattered, we’d stay home with our books and apps like we do the rest of the time.

But when you experience scenario 2, it is very discombobulating. The fact that other people are all feeling connection just rubs it in that you are not. You may still get lots of good subject-specific stuff from the event, and indeed interesting conversations and friendly interactions. But somehow it feels like everyone is part of the club and you aren’t. Why is that? And is there anything we can do to lessen the chance of it happening to people who come to events we organise? (This is the reason I need to understand this!).

I’m reasonably sure that the people who are feeling the love aren’t aware that others are not. I say this both because when I have been in scenario 1 I haven’t noticed those who weren’t, and also because when I have been in scenario 2 other people I have interacted with have talked with great warmth to me of their scenario 1 experiences without realising I wasn’t sharing them. And when I have been the person who made the transformation for someone in scenario 3, I didn’t know until afterwards (actually, years afterwards) that they had been feeling lonely and alienated before we met.

I’m also reasonably sure that you won’t find out about scenario 2 experiences through your usual feedback-gathering processes. People who feel disconnected are unlikely to trust the organisation that has left them feeling that way with an honest account of how they feel.

I’d also note that scenario 2 is not simply about loneliness in terms of lack of social contact, as many people experienced during the various lockdowns of the covid era, or as those who live alone and don’t have much of a wider network do in regular times. That is damaging to one’s mental/emotional health in a long-term, chronic kind of way. But the sense of alienation when you are surrounded by people who are feeling connected but you don’t is much sharper and more immediate. Even when you know the community is potentially there for you as it is for others, and indeed may be repeatedly invited to go back, the reluctance to do so is strong, through a sense of self-preservation. The damage may not be as fundamental as in chronic loneliness, but it leaves emotional scars.

This is getting long enough for one post. We’ve outlined the problem, and I think the next step is going to be looking for common patterns in the accounts on which I’m drawing to see what, as event organisers, we can do to maximise the scenario 1 experience for our participants and minimise the chance of scenario 2. I don’t know how we’ll know if we succeed, but it remains important to make the effort to try.

As a (probably) autistic person scenario 2 is pretty much my default. One of the things that sucked me into barbershop was how quickly that changed. I don't know why that is!

Hi Rachel, barbershop has a pretty well-developed culture of welcome - something I've documented in my book indeed. It doesn't always function perfectly, but it does often enough to make the generalisation.

Some of the factors generalise to singing in choirs in general (the way the music binds people together into shared experience), but what goes on between the music also makes a difference.

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