January 05, 2012

Avoiding Foot-Mouth Proximity Incidents (Creator Interaction Edition)

Now that you've had time to check out the podcast episode mentioned in yesterday's post, it's time for me to lay a little Rashomon on Joe's account of an awkward Gen Con moment . To recap, Joe remembers me looking at him like he was a “total douchebag” because he hadn't yet wrapped his head around Hamlet's Hit Points. Co-host Nicky avers that this is because Joe was indeed being a total douchebag.

I wouldn't say it quite like that.

Joe led off with a faux pas, to be sure, and I, wag that I am, let him twist in the wind over it. To paraphrasing from memory, he started by saying that he didn't like HHP as well as Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering. I laughed at this, in an oh really kind of way, and then proceeded to tease him about this for the remainder of our chat. And am teasing him a bit more now, because that's how I roll. Another creator in similar circumstances might conceal his dudgeon, or get genuinely shirty with you.

Which brings me to a general service announcement. Here are a few handy tips on how to maintain mutually comfortable foot-mouth separation when talking to creators you meet at conventions, signings, and similar events.

The apparent intimacy of the Internet, and the opportunity it provides to express your judgments on art and entertainment products, may lead you astray when it comes time to engage in person people whose work you admire. You may think that creators want to hear critiques of their work expressed with the same frankness you'd use when talking with friends or posting to a forum.

They do not.

Even the necessary process of getting notes from collaborators and trusted readers can be emotionally fraught. Unsolicited notes during a casual social encounter? Etiquette breach! Etiquette breach!

That doesn't mean you ought to fawn, or claim that you like stuff that you don't. Remember though that the unwritten rules of casual interaction remain in force.

When in doubt, ask yourself if you'd expect a good reaction to a comment were the subject swapped to something more mundane.

“I don't like that shirt as well as the one you wore last week.”

Or, given that creative work is a labor of love riven with self-doubt and setback, test your remark by recasting it in a more deeply personal vein:

“I don't like that new baby of yours as well as your first kid.”

If you have an issue with the work, you might succeed in smoothly raising it, if you are indeed a master of diplomacy. Phrasing it in the form of a question might help. “I didn't believe it when Josie went back into the house,” comes off as a note, and is socially assaultive. “Why did Josie go back into the house?” expresses the same thought but doesn't play as a critique.

Roleplayers are luckier than fans of passively consumed work; they can describe practical problems they had in play, or anticipate having in play. “How do I make combat crunchier?” obeys the etiquette of casual interaction. “I still don't like your combat system,” violates it.

Some become unnecessarily anxious when meeting people whose work they like. No one in this field is a Clooney-level celebrity who needs social insulation from fans. I sure want people to feel comfortable approaching me for a chat. I strive to make myself accessible, and so do the vast majority of my colleagues.

On occasion this anxiety leads to a related faux pas, in which an embarrassed speaker tries to defuse the situation by backhanding the compliment, inadvertently converting it into a jab. Never feel you have to apologize, or undercut yourself, when saying something nice.

If a creator makes you feel bad for being excited about his work, they're the douchebag.

Not that Joe, in our inciting example, was being a douchebag, total or otherwise. He just had an unfortunate foot-mouth proximity incident (FMPI), which happens to all of us now and then.

And now we are all well-equipped to avoid similar FMPIs of our own.