It's not enough to sit in our homes making cool things; we want to go out, show them off, meet other people with cool stuff to show off. And sometimes this is where we run into trouble. Some of us aren't very good at social interaction, at being in new settings. Some of us have run into trouble with our fellow steampunks, or grown tired or bitter over certain behaviors. So these are some thoughts that have been going on in my mind.
Part I: Tips for Those New to Steampunk
The first thing to remember is that everyone, or ALMOST everyone, gets nervous when going into a new social environment where they don't know anyone. You're not alone in feeling that way. I've suffered from social anxiety a lot over the years, but I have overcome it to a certain extent. I have a tendency to want to back out of going to a social event at the last minute, because I get too nervous. For the most part I avoid that by making it impossible to do. I commit money to events, I arrange to go with friends, I make plans to see people somewhere, I do a bunch of things that mean that backing out would probably end up being more embarrassing than going. (I mean, if you tell everyone you know that you're going to an awesome convention and then you end up not going, it's going to be weird to explain to people, right?)
Some people, upon encountering the steampunk community en masse, feel left out of the loop. This is a really common reaction of newbies, I think. But it's not unique to steampunk. Any time you show up to an event without knowing anyone, and the majority of the people there know each other, chances are you're going to feel left out. It's honestly not that steampunks aren't welcoming. They aren't snubbing you, I promise. It's just that they are excited to be around each other and are busy greeting and catching up with their friends. This tends to work out worst in very short gatherings, like a one night event or couple hour long meetup. Established steampunks spend all their time with people they already know and don't have time to get to know newbies. So weekend long events are really best if you're looking to make friends.
One thing to keep in mind if you encounter a situation like this: yes, all these people seem to be part of an "in-crowd." But I guarantee that ALL of them were once in your own shoes. At some point they showed up at a steampunk event not knowing anyone, or knowing very few people. And they may have felt just as awkward as you do, but somehow they got past it and eventually became part of this community.
My first encounter with the steampunk community wasn't a positive one. I'm going to be vague about the event and location of it to avoid calling anyone out, but it wouldn't be hard to figure it out. Anyway, my husband and I decided to put together steampunk costumes for a large convention. It was my first con of any kind, and I really was only going for an excuse to dress steampunk. We put together our costumes mostly from thrift stores. I didn't know how to sew at all then. But despite the honestly rudimentary level of our costumes (at least mine) I was proud of them. We showed up to the con and got dressed up and headed to the "Steampunk Social." It was a meeting room with some chairs, some music playing, and a bunch of people. It was pretty obvious, after some time, that the people standing in groups in the middle of the room knew each other. They also had the nicest costumes. The people sitting on the outskirts in chairs weren't talking to anyone and had more thrift store looking costumes. After sitting on the outskirts myself, I gathered my courage and went to stand close to the chatting steampunks. No one approached us. I walked up to two girls who were talking and complementing one of them on her hat. She looked at me, didn't say anything, and went back to her conversation. I felt like I had broken some kind of rule by commenting on her hat. I became more dismayed as I studied what people were wearing and started feeling like though some of the outfits were gorgeous, they were BOUGHT that way. I was proud of our hand-made costumes and didn't like seeing what I put down as ready-made steampunk outfits.
Now, I was definitely right about SOME of these people's outfits. But the assumption I made that just because something was elaborate and impressive it wasn't made by the wearer: that was a totally incorrect assumption. (I know because I get incredulity from newbies when they find out I made my outfits and corsets.) My husband and I left soon after, probably having stayed for only about 20 minutes and not talking to anyone. I've heard similar stories from others in the community.
What did I do right and wrong in that example? First of all, I think it was a difficult venue to try to break into steampunk. Like I said, a brief gathering during a very busy con isn't really the ideal environment to meet people. Really involved steampunks are probably busy with con events, presenting panels, vending, or just catching up with friends. I probably would have done better to approach people in steampunk dress separately over the con weekend, especially if I saw anyone sitting, smoking, or otherwise just hanging out. However, I did do right by approaching that girl and trying to start a conversation about her hat. She just was apparently a bitch, or otherwise distracted.
Cause here's the awesome thing about steampunk: people want to talk about their creations! All you have to do to start a conversation with a steampunk is to walk up and compliment them on some part of their outfit. Pick something specific. You can say, "I love your outfit," but follow it with, "especially that arm bracer, that's so cool." If that doesn't immediately start a conversation follow it with, "Did you make that?" Chances are that they did, or they know the person who did. If they made it, you're set. Show genuine interest in how something is made and it's almost impossible to resist getting into a long conversation about the creation process. If you express further interest in wanting to learn to do similar things yourself, chances are they will tell you how to do it, or give you tips on where to find out. (If it's me, I'll then hand you a card pointing you to this blog.) This is actually the best thing about making friends through steampunk: the built in topics of conversation. And don't worry about bothering someone. Even when we're busy, we always genuinely appreciate compliments on our outfits. Although if we ARE really busy, we might run away quickly, but it's not personal.
Another tip for newbies: don't be afraid to look ignorant. You don't have to pretend you know everything about steampunk. If you don't understand something, or don't know something, or just want to know how to get more information about something, ASK. Maybe you don't have much of a costume but you WANT to put one together. Ask people for tips on how to do that. Of course, most cons have panels to teach just these kinds of things, but we're looking for ways to meet people, and again, steampunks generally LOVE talking about these things. We're always talking about where to find things and how to make things with each other anyway. If you want to know about steampunk books, movies, RPGs, whatever, ask around. Don't be ashamed of being new, but respect that people sometimes ARE busy or otherwise occupied, so don't FORCE yourself on someone else's time, either. Chances are if you talk to someone at one point in a con for a brief time, you will run into them again, at which point you can say hi and try to talk some more.
Another good place to meet people is the dealer's room. As a dealer, I notice that I spend much more time talking to newbies than other more established steampunks. But really, somebody behind a dealer table is probably bored and willing to talk, especially if you want to talk about what they're selling. Make sure you're not blocking traffic to their table if you're not actively shopping, but if things aren't busy, chances are the dealers would welcome some questions. It's also totally fine to say, "I don't have any money right now, but I really like your stuff," and then talk about it. Unless the dealer happens to be a total jerk, which, let's face it occasionally happens. But not that often.
Finally, don't expect to find a new best friend at a con. Though, of course you <i>might</i>, but chances are it will take a longer acquaintance than just a few conversations to really make friends. Here's where the internet comes in. When you meet people and really hit it off, try to get their name and maybe an email or Facebook address. Write down names in a book if you have to. Often people have a real name and a steampunk name. It's ok to ask which name they use on facebook, or if they are on Insert-Your-Favorite-Social-Network-Here. In my experience most steampunk interaction happens on facebook. It's certainly true in the Texas community. There's also the Steampunk Empire, which is meant to be facebook for steampunks, but in practice, I don't think many people really use it. I find the interface too confusing. If you want to keep your steampunk persona separate from your RL accounts, make yourself a facebook account under a steampunk name and start friending people. Make sure you're looking at photo galleries after a con, and finding the people tagged in the photos. This is a great way to become friends with people you met at a con. Post your pictures and tag anyone you can, let others tag people, too. Then keep in touch with people online. This is how a lot of steampunks really get to know each other. They post pictures of their projects and ask for advice and post links, and soon you have a bunch of steampunk friends. So the next event you attend, hopefully you know some people by name and they know you by name, too.
Part Two: Thoughts for Established Steampunks
It's not only the newbies that need to think about how to best go about social interaction. There are some things oldies need to take into consideration, too.
Most obviously, we need to be aware of how we come off to new people. The criticism that we seem insular at times is common for a reason. No matter how understandable for the reasons I've talked about, it would benefit the community to make an effort to be more available or approachable. It's easy for us to get too involved with a small group, whether that is an airship or a group from your area, or whatever. Surely there's a reason we bother to go to cons and it's not just to show off our clothes. We need to remember to be open to new people.
There are different ways we can make newbies feel more welcomed. Obviously we can approach people who look isolated and introduce ourselves. We can invite people to our panels, games, LARP, whatever. Take the opportunity to say hi to the people attending by themselves, especially if you end up sitting close to them in a restaurant or panel or lounge. If you see them again, ask how they're enjoying the con. Try to help direct people towards what they are interested in. Sometimes cons can be confusing and people may not know where things are happening.
Go up to people you don't know and compliment them on their outfit, even if it's not the most amazing thing you've ever seen. Offer your expertise if you see something to point out, but don't come off as critical. Sometimes people come off as know-it-alls when they point out flaws in people's work. I know this happens to me and it DRIVES ME NUTS. ("What did you use to make that? Oh, you really should have used Product X." ) Sometimes this is helpful, but sometimes you're coming off as a douche. Try to compliment and offer additional information rather than criticize and correct. Say hi to people you know from the internet. Introduce yourself to people you ONLY know on the internet.
There's also a certain level of difficulty with socializing WITHIN the steampunk community. There's a tendency I've seen towards insular groups who either don't hang out with people outside their group, or who are critical and negative towards others. Again, there's a fine line between wanting to hang with your friends cause you like them and NOT wanting to hang with anyone else cause you don't LIKE anyone else. There are always going to be squabbles between individuals within a community. There's always going to be gossip. But when gossip turns into trash talk and personal squabbles become vendettas against entire airships, we have a problem.
The important thing to ask yourself is, "Why am I IN the steampunk community to begin with?" If you're only in it for the 'Ooh shiny,' you might as well sit at home and look at Tumblr. (I'm not judging, I spend WAY too much time on Pinterest.) If you only want to hang out with people you already know, it's much cheaper to do that at your house than at a con. But if you want to see new things and meet new people, learn new techniques, and have unexpected kinds of fun, then you belong at a con. If you want to get the most out of it, that requires venturing out of your comfort zone and trying new things, meeting new people.
This is something I personally am reminding myself about. It's easy to get bogged down in personalities, politics, and bitterness. We need to remember what we're actually in this for, and what is awesome about steampunk. It's about unexpected people making unexpected things. It's about learning and expanding the knowledge base of a creative community. It's NOT about cliques and gossip. Keep that shit in high school.
I want the steampunk community to be that awesome place where we celebrate creativity and enthusiasm and originality. I want to spread knowledge, compliments, and respect. I want to revel in those parts of steampunk that make me happy, without feeling the need to deprive someone else of what might make THEM happy but that I may not care for.
Who's with me?
(Disclaimer: This post is not in response to any particular event, group, or person. Parts of it came from me thinking about things I've heard, discussed, witnessed, or experienced, but I am not talking to or about anyone in particular. Or at least, I'm talking to a whole bunch of people at once.)