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I was at a conference on resiliency in October, before my life got busy, and soothing struck me.  Not the conference itself, but something about permission.

The conference was in avery nice room that offered cover for each row in the amphitheater seats, including a microphone for each attendee.  There was room for perhaps a hundred people in there, with most of the seats full.

I arrived a few minutes late the first day, as I was shoehorning it into my wife’s schedule. I sat in one of the rows nearest the entrance.  Within about 5 minutes, I noticed that the man to my left was busily composing a powerpoint presentation, and the person on the right was checking her smart phone. All during a talk.  I’ve been to Hindu ceremonies and services before, so I know the appeal of just showing up to socialize, but this seemed more like a violation of classroom etiquette.  We were at a conference after all.

Within 30 minutes I was doing it too.  Hey, free WiFi, after all, and I did have work to do.

We set our behavior in regard to those around us.  To do otherwise is at least uncomfortable.  How we behave depends on the setting we are in , and those settings can be very nested.  While my ordinary behavior at a conference  would be to pay attention and format questions*, my more immediate setting the people next to me allowed me to do what I want ed to do in the first place: futz around on the internet and edit my chapter.  If I was embroiled in a smart phone conversation, or thinking about an argument, my behavior could have become even more irrelevant to the conference.

Yet I would have done it all very quietly, as it was a conference, after all.  It it was a walking conference, we would have been louder, to be heard by all in attendance.

This need to set our behavior to pr against those around us is powerful.  Famously, people consume less power when their power bills give an idea f how they are doing in relation to the average.  Thermostats that tell us this information in real time might get even more immediate results.  Charities work if we put a face on the beneficiary, but they work less if we tie that face to a statistic.  Donors feel suddenly beholden t the universe of the problem, and despair.  Cash incentives don’t work nearly as well as relationships incentives.  If your friends are doing it, why not support them?  We all have different sets of friends, and they all agree about different core values while disagreeing on their fluff.

* I didn’t ask one until the last day, but it had been brewing since the first: “How do we make resiliency obvious, in the face of all these baroque interactions and models?”