Table Manners: A Very Special Geek Convention PSA

So! That last Table Manners post had some real legs, didn’t it? Wow. Y’all are amazing, I have to say. One of the responses that came up as the reactions to the post went on, though, was a call for more specific, helpful advice for gamers in general and guys in particular in order to improve or avoid some of the bad behavior that was the subject of the post. After all, these responders reasoned, if I’m going to take these guys to task for being ill-behaved and ask them to do better, shouldn’t I also do more to help them know what that means? I figured that was a fair point, so I gave the traditional Internet response – “Challenge accepted!” – and put the word out to some of the gamers and geeks I knew that I was looking for advice to help people treat each other better in the scene, then collected their answers.

After sifting through some of the responses I got, I decided to split it into two parts, spread across two posts: Conventions and Gaming. Conventions is a bit more general, and covers all kinds of cons – gaming, comics, entertainment, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, you name it. In particular, it focuses a bit on proper etiquette for approaching strangers – celebrities, cosplayers and costume designers especially – since that seemed to what got the biggest response. Gaming is a bit more specific in scope, and talks mostly about tabletop and larp gaming, though I think a lot of it applies to video games, board games and other gaming forms as well. I wanted to make them one post, honestly, but as I wrote it became clear they were each long enough to justify their own post, and I felt lumping them together would also detract from the message of each. You can look for the follow-up to drop in a day or two, promise!

It’s worth noting, of course, that these are tips and guidelines, not absolutes, and what’s appropriate in one situation might not be in another, even if they seem otherwise identical. Some cosplayers love having their picture taken, but others might decline no matter how polite you are, and even that cute couple who gladly posed for your “Dr. Who versus Pinkie Pie Deathmatch!” photo earlier in the day might just want to get back to their room and not be in the mood for pictures later on. With that in mind, as a rule of thumb I encourage you to treat each situation as its own new experience; even if you had a great conversation and photo op with a celebrity earlier in the day, that doesn’t mean you should just walk up to them while they’re talking to their friends at the hotel bar and act like you’ve been buddies for years.

Last but not least, you’ll notice that none of these tips address how to get a date, put the moves on someone or otherwise enter the sexual/relationship sphere.  That’s deliberate; I definitely didn’t want people to think this was some kind of “How to Pickup Con Hotties” or “Bringing that Elf Ranger Back to Your Place 101” guide. Besides, I think the whole “pickup artist” scene is creepy as hell, so if that’s your cup of tea, kindly drink it elsewhere. I will say this and only this on the subject: Good manners should not be viewed as a stepping stone to or a guarantee of sexy funtimes, they’re an end unto themselves and should be treated accordingly  … but that said, good manners are also a hell of a better start to a conversation than the alternative. Just puttin’ that out there.

Convention Etiquette 101

Conventions are purpose-built sensory overload, but even in the midst of the panels and the demos and the workshops and the previews and the parties and the dealers’ room, there’s still no excuse for forgetting a few basic rules of etiquette when it comes to your fellow convention-goers, whether they’re working the con or fans like you. What follows is a series of tips to help you make a good impression and avoid the “creeper factor” as you meet people, take pictures and strike up conversations around the con. So if you’re nervous about the social rules surrounding the convention scene, well friend, we’re here to help you.

Be Nice

Yep. The Mister Rogers rule. Be nice to people. You might see what you think is a terrible cosplay and be tempted to comment on it right there, for example, perhaps even while that person is in earshot, but my advice? Save it for your blog, if you really feel the need to say it anywhere.  It’s not about censorsing yourself, it’s about taking a moment and remembering that everyone is at the con to have fun, geek out about things they love and generally enjoy their fandoms in the company of other fans for a day or two. Why take that away from someone else, just because you don’t approve of their choice of costume or favorite movie or best rpg ever or whatever else it is? You probably don’t like it when people make fun of your hobbies, so why on earth would you turn around and bring that sort of bullying and aggravation into the scene yourself?

So, take the high road when you can. Be nice to people. You’d be amazed how far it gets you.

Look, Don’t Leer

OK, I know this is going to be subjective territory at times, but let me give you a couple rules of thumb – if you’re looking at someone long enough that they look back not once but twice or more in your direction, clearly aware that you’re looking at them, then you’ve probably crossed from “looking” to “staring” (and are making them uncomfortable too). And if you’re in a place where they’re not likely to see you, like looking down from a balcony, then count Nathan Fillion credits backward to yourself: “1, Castle, 2, Dr. Horrible, 3, Serenity, etc.” If you reach Saving Private Ryan, you’ve been looking too long.  What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, have you ever been riding on the subway or walking down the street, seen a stranger looking at you, then looked back a few seconds and saw that they were still staring at you? Creepy, right? So don’t do that to someone else across the convention floor. Sure, you may mean no harm by it – but they don’t know that, and shouldn’t have to worry about the distinction.

Also, it’s worth noting that openly staring at body parts – especially the sexy ones – is pretty much automatically going to put you in the creeper category as far as most people are concerned. And yes, it is different than simply appreciating an attractive person in general. For instance, you can think a woman is absolutely stunning and still be able to maintain eye contact for a full conversation, as opposed to spending the entire chat staring into her cleavage as though a mystical formula for transmuting d12s into gold was tattooed across it. The former shows appreciation for a whole person, but the latter fetishizes a body part to the point where the person attached to it is pretty much an afterthought. Remember, you might think that this sort of body appreciation is a compliment – “I can’t help admiring how gorgeous that costume is!”, “You can’t dress up like Captain Jack Harkness and not expect people to stare!” – but once again they don’t know what’s in your head. All they see is someone staring, and it’s likely to make them more than a bit uncomfortable.

Of course, if someone is rocking a really awesome cosplay, or is the big star of everything you’ve ever liked in film and television, or wrote that game you’ve been playing nonstop for years, or has created a super elaborate costume you just can’t believe, you might wonder: How are you supposed to appreciate all that magnificence in just a couple of seconds before moving on? Fair question. The answer is that if you think you’re going to need some serious time to appreciate the person and their work, it’s probably best to actually approach them and let them know that you’re a fan or that you’re admiring their handiwork (or both). That way you can express your admiration and not just be someone creeping on them from afar, plus it gives you the advantage of possibly getting to meet a con rock star and take some pictures up close instead of furtive, stalker-y shots from deep in the crowd.

Meeting people give you a big case of the nerves? No worries! Keep reading, we’ve got your back.

Stop and Ask Yourself, “Am I Interrupting?”

Before you approach someone at a convention, whether it’s a celebrity or an awesome cosplayer or your favorite game designer, take a few seconds to see if you might be interrupting. Conventions are busy places, and people are often juggling several things at once – talking to friends, browsing booths, texting their dinner plans, you name it. That doesn’t mean you can’t approach them until they’re standing alone and staring off into space with nothing to do, but one sure way to get off on the wrong foot is to walk up to someone in the middle of something that’s really demanding their attention – eating dinner, talking on the phone, taking a picture with someone else, having a tender moment with their sweetie – especially if you don’t seem to notice that you might be intruding.

If it looks like the person you want to talk to or take a picture of might be busy, always err on the side of the caution and acknowledge that when you introduce yourself: “I’m really sorry if I’m interrupting, but do you have a moment for a picture/autograph/question?” It’s a lot more considerate than just walking up and demanding some of their time as though you were the only important thing at the con. Plus, if they don’t have time but you’re polite when you ask, you’re more likely to have them tell you a better time later if they have one available. You show consideration for their schedule, they have a polite way to turn you down if it really isn’t a good time, everyone wins.

Introduce Yourself Politely Before Asking for Anything

OK. So you want to approach someone and it looks like you’ve got a good window to do so. Now, I know introducing yourself to strangers can be stressful as hell, no question, but as a rule it sure beats just walking up to someone and demanding a picture or launching straight into a discussion of your common hobbies. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, either; just a simple “Hi, I’m [Your Name Here], how are you?” is a great start. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be amazed at how many people skip this step, which means that suddenly you’re putting a total stranger on the spot by launching right into a topic like you’ve been talking for years.

For what it’s worth, people are also a lot more likely to consider your requests if you approach them politely and engage them first, rather than just walking up and demanding something out of the blue. So even from a bottom-line perspective, this basic courtesy still makes a lot of sense. Practice it.

Ask Before You Touch

Here’s a big rule that a lot of people violate without even thinking about it, even though most of us were taught it back in kindergarten: Don’t touch other people without asking. Simple as that, and yet a lot of people forget it as soon as cameras come out or costumes come into play. So this one’s short and to the point – always ask before you touch someone. Even if you think it’s casual contact, such as if you want to throw your arm around someone for a photo – or shake their hand, or stand back to back, or touch them in any other way really – ask them first. If they don’t care, they’ll tell you so and you still come off being more polite than most; if they do care, you can avoid an embarrassing moment and possibly crossing into creeper territory. When I’ve posed with celebrities at cons, I’ve never had one react poorly to me asking them if I can throw an arm around them or shake their hand for the photo … but I have had some politely decline, and I’ve also seen them get justifiably annoyed when someone touched them without asking first.

Likewise, when it comes to costumes, props and cosplay in general, don’t assume you can touch anything without asking first; even if it’s a giant angel wing sticking three feet off their body, it’s still an extension of their person, and one they probably spent a lot of time working on and don’t want people messing with at random. Not only is it rude, but a lot of costume pieces are lighter and more delicate than they might appear, in order to prevent the cosplayer’s untimely death from sweating under 175 lbs of costuming all day at Otakon, and you might end up doing several hundred dollars and several thousand hours of damage very easily. I’m a steampunk and a larper who’s married to a costumer, so costume etiquette is more strongly ingrained in me than most, but let me tell you that few things annoy my otherwise sunny and amazing wife faster than people walking up and touching her costuming without asking. She’s likely fine with people examining the craftsmanship if they ask first, but if they don’t? It’s intrusive.

Oh, and About Those Photos

Just like you don’t want to touch people without asking, it’s also safe to assume that you should ask people before taking their picture. “But they’re in a public place!” I hear some people say. “And they’re dressed up! You can’t tell me that they don’t want their picture taken!” Actually, yes, I can. Believe it or not, not everyone at a con wants their picture taken, or wants it taken by people they don’t know, and that’s their right. A lawyer may not want opposing counsel to find pictures of him dressed as Weapon X; a woman might have a stalker in her past that makes her averse to any pictures of her showing up online; a celebrity might not want pictures taken when they don’t have their game face on or feel up to dealing with the public. Not that they have to share their reasons – all they have to do is say “No, I don’t want my picture taken” and that’s the end of the conversation. I know it might be really disappointing to come across the best genderbent Deadpool cosplay you’ve ever seen, approach her politely and ask her a for a photo only to be told no, but in the end, that’s her decision. Respect it and move on.

If you’re nervous about asking for a picture, you can also hang back a bit and wait for other people to take pictures – this is pretty likely with a good cosplay or a celebrity – and it gives you a natural moment to make your own request since others have broken the ice. Just try not to follow them all over the con or for long periods of time, or it’s going to make you seem like a creeper because they’re bound to notice you sooner or later.

Also, I’m not saying you can’t take pictures at a con without getting the permission of everyone in the background; that’s just not going to happen. Cons are too crowded to make that practical, and anyway, if you’re really just trying to take a picture of your best friend in front of the Evil Hat booth and a cosplayer wanders into the background of the shot, so be it. But there’s a big difference between taking crowd shots or candids of your friends that happen to include other people in passing, and deliberately setting up shots so that you can get a picture of someone else while pretending to take a different photo.

I mean, I know that right now some folks out there are thinking “Well, can’t I just take someone’s picture anyway, whether or not they tell me no or even ask in the first place?” To which I respond, stop and think about what you’re saying. What you’re describing – making a conscious decision to take someone’s picture in a way that avoids or ignores getting their consent – is really pretty creepy. And if it doesn’t seem creepy to you, that’s kind of scary on its own.

Be Cool with “No”

I’m not talking about “No means no” here, though while we’re on the subject, that too, damn straight. What I’m talking about is everything not covered by the above – autograph requests, attempts to share your analysis of a star’s last three movies, offering someone a free T-shirt from your gaming store if they’ll pose with it, you name it. It might make perfect sense in your head, it might be a totally innocent request, it might only take 30 seconds for them while it would totally make your year – and it their answer still might be no. And you have to be OK, not only with that being the answer, but the fact that you also might not get an explanation.  Because while some folks will offer one in the spirit of politeness, they don’t actually owe you one – you’re the one who approached them and asked for something, remember?

I’ve seen a lot of fans approach people at conventions with all sorts of requests, and you can see that they’ve played the exchange over and over in their head before they walked up, never once considering it might not work. “I just know Wil Wheaton will think this shirt is awesome,” they’ve told themselves, imagining the moment as he slips on their irreverent “Kobolds Do It In Great Numbers” T-shirt and thereby becomes the envy of the con. “How can he not? He’s a gamer! He’s totally going to wear it!” But remember, just because it makes sense to you and seems reasonable in your eyes doesn’t mean it will line up with what that person is OK with, either at that moment or in general. Maybe he has a policy about not accepting gifts from fans, or he’s running late to a panel and literally doesn’t have the time, or his first TPK came at the scaly hands of a kobold horde and just thinking about the little bastards gives him traumatic flashbacks. Or maybe – and this allowed too – he just isn’t interested in the shirt. All of these and countless more are legitimate reasons to turn down your request, and you have to be OK with that before you step up and ask.

In the end, remember that when you pay your admission, you’re not entitled to anything at a con beyond any special events you sign up for – such as a guaranteed photo op or autograph session – and even those usually have rules that you’re expected to follow.  Which means that even things that seem like no big deal to you might not be something someone else is interested in, and that’s their right.

Not All Compliments Are Created Equally

So now you’re talking to someone, and you want to tell them what’s so awesome that you just had to come over and say hi, but sadly, a lot of geeks are master of left-handed compliments, things that they think are positive but are actually mixed at best. You may mean all the best by it, for instance, but telling that game designer “Oh my god, I love your new game! It’s soooo much better than your last two!” isn’t likely to win you much goodwill. Why? Because even though you think you’re saying something nice, you’re essentially saying that you thought their last two games were terrible. You might not mean that – you might also like the other two – but that’s not what you actually said. Another classic is “You look really badass, for a girl” – well, pretty much anything with the “for a girl” phrase suffixed is probably a good example of a bad compliment. You might mean to say something positive, but all that the other person is going to hear is that you track women separately from men in the category being discussed, and unless gender’s an essential and obvious factor that’s not going to go over too well.

Another category of compliments that cause a ton of tension and aggravation are physical or sexual compliments. “You look so sexy!” is intended to be positive, for instance, but it also immediately suggests that you see the person as a potential sexual partner (or object). This is rarely a good way to make a first impression with a stranger, because the other person immediately has to wonder if you’re hitting on them, which can derail an otherwise pleasant exchange as they evaluate that situation instead of focus on a fun conversation. Again, you might know that you have no interest in them as a sexual partner, but they don’t know that, and given that you’re a stranger, they’re likely to assume the worst if you put them in that situation. I know, that sucks, but it’s the world we live in, at least until we change it.

And it should go without saying, but praising body parts – “You have amazing tits!”, “Your costume makes your ass look awesome!”, “Your feet are really pretty!” – is pretty much a bad call all around. Even if it’s an “innocent” body part, it makes them immediately aware that you’re closely studying their body, and that can make them very uncomfortable as they wonder why you’re doing that and if your interest is purely lecherous. You might feel like you wouldn’t mind if people said those things to you, so what’s the harm in saying them to others, but other people won’t automatically feel the same way. Now, if things take a particular turn and you wind up going on a date with them later on, that might be the time to tell them how their Akuma costume made their pecs look fabulous or how their Asuka suit accentuated their curves, but until then? Unless specifically invited to do so, I’d keep the body compliments to yourself and focus on costume pieces and props instead.

With that in mind, take a moment to compose a proper compliment or two if you have a chance. I don’t want to stress people out by making them go over and over their words until they’re absolutely perfect, but fortunately at conventions you often have time in autograph lines, panel crowds or other places to think out what you might say in advance. And if you’re really worried about getting it right, keep it simple – just say one nice thing and a thank you: “Thanks for your work, I love your movies,” “That costume is amazing, thanks for the pics,” “Your games really inspired me, thank you.” You’d be amazed how far a little thank you can go.

Have An Exit Strategy

I know most of us have this secret fantasy – no, not that one, the other one, the one where we meet one of our idols at a convention and wind up hitting it off. What starts as two strangers meeting becomes something more friendly and casual, and before long we’re swapping buddy IMs with Felicia Day or dropping guest vocals on that new Paul and Storm ode to the Valve gaming console that shall never be. Or maybe it’s not quite as star struck as that, just an invitation to join that elite cosplay group we’ve been admiring from afar or an alpha tester spot for a new MMO we’ve heard a lot about. Whatever it is, there’s this conviction that a lot of us have deep down that we’re just one good conversation with our heroes away from realizing our dreams – but while that might be true in some rare instances, it also tends to mean that people wear out their welcome at conventions trying to make it happen, turning what were pleasant interactions into increasingly uncomfortable and one-sided exchanges the other person can’t wait to end.

My advice? Don’t assume that a simple request like a photo or an autograph is automatically an opportunity for a long, in-depth conversation. If the two of you start chatting, great, I’m not saying you need to cut it short for some arbitrary reason, but try to gauge the other person’s level of engagement and excuse yourself when it looks like it’s run its course (ideally a little before it reaches the very end). If the conversation starts hitting some long pauses, or it circles back around to points you’ve already made, or they start glancing around a lot like they have somewhere else to be, you’re likely at the edge of your welcome, if not already tipping over. At that point thank them for their time and anything they might have done for you – pics, autographs, etc. – and just excuse yourself. It might seem a little awkward, but it makes a much better impression than having the moment stretch out out so far it finally snaps and they’re forced to take more direct action to end it.

Worried that you might have accidentally cut short a crucial conversation before its prime? Well, for one thing, if you go to excuse yourself and the other person protests, that’s usually a good sign that you can stick around a while longer – you gave them a chance to politely bow out of conversation and they didn’t take it. For another, this is the reason business cards were invented – have a batch of professional-looking ones made and offer them to people as you’re leaving the conversation. Nothing fancy, nothing too cute, just your name and some basic contact information. That way if they want to get in touch with you later – for example, to get copies of the pics you took of their cosplay – they have an easy way to do so, without requiring them to find a pen or whip out their phone. What’s more, giving them a card means future contact will be on their terms as well – they choose when and how to contact you, which is a lot less pressure than asking for their info on the spot. Plus offering a business card can result in receiving one in return, which can also tell you a lot about whether or not someone is interested in continued contact.

Speak Up

Last but most certainly not least, remember that con culture will only change for the better when it hits a critical mass of people who stand up to the jerks and call them on their bullshit. If you see someone bullying a reluctant cosplayer for a picture, speak up. If you see someone getting creepy and not taking no for an answer at the hotel bar, speak up.  If you see someone ridiculing another attendee for how they look or what they say, speak up. I’m not saying wade in with fists swinging – if you think a situation’s tipping dangerously, by all means call security or the cops – but a lot of the bad behavior arises from the fact that nobody speaks up when the jerks act like assholes, which makes them think it’s OK to be that way. If we can get enough people to make it clear that it’s not acceptable, it may not change their minds, but it will take the megaphone out of their hands and give the rest of us a chance to speak our minds instead.

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Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates! 

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5 responses

  1. How do you get people to think about these things in the first place and then put them into action?

    I’ve attended conventions where they have tried to offer workshops or panels on the above topics and with very mixed results; I’ve even hosted or co-hosted a few of these. Often those attending are not the ones offending because they are oblivious (sometimes purposely so),

    I think the “Speak Out” advice is one way to get people to be aware.

    August 1, 2013 at 7:23 pm

  2. I’ve seen the same thing as TammyJo. The ones who need to attend these panels are not the ones who usually show up.

    As for speaking out, I recently ran across this advice. Just look at the miscreant and say “Not cool!”. Say it with conviction and only as loud as necessary.

    August 1, 2013 at 10:19 pm

  3. “I’m not talking about “No means no” here, though while we’re on the subject, that too, damn straight.”

    Allow me to say that, in fact, it is more proper to think, “Yes means yes. Everything else means no. (And if the person is under the influence, that’s an automatic “no.”)” Many people, women especially, are socialised to not directly say “no” because it is considered impolite. So, if a person gives you an excuse, it’s best to leave any follow-up to them rather than relentlessly badgering them.

    August 1, 2013 at 11:17 pm

  4. Scott Katinger

    Hmmmm….good stuff. I’d love to see this printed up pamphlet-style and handed to con-goers with their badges. It would make speaking out easier for folks if it was also clearly convention policy. Some folks feel better about breaking out of their shell to confront something if they know they are officially in the right.

    As an addition to all of these… hygiene and consciousness of personal space. If you want to talk to a stranger, don’t smell like a pile of old gym clothes, pant onion and ass breath at them and stand close enough to make onlookers thing you’re slow dancing. And that personal space thing applies to your belongings as well. If you hit me with the overstuffed sherpa pack you’re wearing when you turn around or bark my shins with your saddlebags of swag, I’m not very likely to want to talk to you other than to question your parentage.

    August 2, 2013 at 12:31 am

    • A lot of conventions are waking up to the need for an anti-harassment policy, which will also, hopefully, encourage folks to nip problem behaviour in the bud. Of course, these policies are more broad than the above advice and can’t go into details on how to gauge when to break off conversations and how to check yourself to make sure you’re not staring, so advice like this is very welcome as well.

      August 2, 2013 at 3:08 am

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