Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Magic Vest Phenomenon and Other Wearable Tools for Talking to Strangers

I've been thinking recently about how I originally got interested in talking to strangers in museums. I am not a person who is fundamentally good at talking to strangers. I love playing host to friends, but I clam up in big crowds, never go to happy hour, and don't know how to flirt. Working in museums as floor staff cracked open the social stranger door for me. My first museum job was working on the floor at the Acton Science Discovery Museum in Massachusetts. Like floor staff everywhere, I wore a vest that identified me as a staff person. It was blue. It was polyester. And It was a magic vest.

What made it magic? When I slipped on the vest, I was suddenly identified as someone who was safe for strangers to talk to. I could approach a kid and ask him a question or put a tuning fork to her elbow without any parents getting suspicious. I could jump in with a perplexed family and help them make the pendulum work. I was sought out and could initiate conversations. I could even tell dumb jokes or get people to sing songs about science with me. Magic.

Some days, I'd leave the museum to go grocery shopping, and I'd forget that I'd taken off my magic vest. I'd ask people questions in the produce aisle, bend down to talk to a small kid about what she was having for dinner. Sometimes this worked out, but more often, I was perceived as an intruder. Without the vest, I wasn't able to engage in the way that worked for me at the museum, and I didn't have any fall-back way to connect with strangers. So I stopped trying.

Over the years, I've learned to put on an imaginary magic vest when I go to museums, and I've gotten more comfortable starting conversations without it. But the physical vest is still better. When I told this story to a friend of mine who's a fire fighter, he immediately agreed--he feels like his uniform is also a magic social object. In uniform, he's someone who is perceived as a helpful source of information and a safe and enjoyable person to talk with. Out of uniform, he's just another guy on the street.

Of course, there's no single social object that projects a universal message of openness and willingness to engage. A person in a cop uniform may be inviting to some, threatening to others. I think of my dog as an amazing social object, but I'm also aware that for some people, dogs are scary creatures to be avoided. Every piece of apparel or physical extension of oneself invites others to pass judgment. The trick is to find the things that encourage others to judge you as welcoming and worthy of positive interaction.

I wouldn't be the person I am today, one who is genuinely interested in others' opinions and jumps into participatory museum experiences, if not for my time on the museum floor in the magic vest. I believe that everyone deserves to have a magic vest experience, and that for socially inept people like myself, having an opt-in way to signal your interest in interpersonal communication can be a great social tool to mediate the experience. There are some safety concerns--we wouldn't want people impersonating fire fighters--but there should be some "magic vests" that come laden with positive interest and intent rather than authority. Many science museums offer kids lab coats to wear during programs, which affects their self-perception and modes of expression. What if we offered all visitors coats, vests, hats, etc. to express their interest in engaging in particular ways? I've written before about the idea of offering visitors stickers or buttons that say "ASK ME WHAT I THINK" so they can have their own social experiences facilitated by apparel, and I'm looking for more options.

Why does talking to strangers matter? Every time I do it, it improves my ability to empathize and understand other people. It brings surprising and delightful experiences into my life. My default is to feel phenomenally lonely in large social venues like museums and conferences. Finding the right tools to enable social engagement lets me leave my own shell and connect with and enjoy the rest of the world.

I'm curious what "magic vest" experiences you've had--whether in museums or elsewhere--and how you think wearable social objects fit into participatory experiences with strangers. What's your magic vest? Where do you wear it, and what superpower does it have?

28 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

I've found that carrying around a camera (the bigger the better) often has a similar effect. I'm often approached by tourists downtown who hand me their camera and ask me to take their picture. Often we don't even have a language in common, but the camera somehow makes me approachable.

Once I was shooting along a railroad track in Nevada used by a tourist steam train. I was using an antique view camera (leather bellows, black cloth over my head to focus, etc). A car came down the road and the driver pulled over and got out. He started telling me about his childhood memories of his father shooting with a camera like the one I was using. We chatted for about 10 minutes and he got ready to leave. He took a card out of his pocket and scribbled a note. "Give this to them at the railroad station in town," he said, "and they'll let you ride in the engine". turned out he owned the railroad!

Anonymous said...

I wore a National Park Service Ranger uniform for several years, and there's nothing quite like the flat hat to change yourself, and others perception of you.

I traded the hat for a video camera about 8 years ago, and now that has been my "magic vest", and it has taken me many places, and allowed me to meet many different people.

I wonder if what an online version of the vest would be. A blog?

Anonymous said...

I also think of objects that have just the opposite effect. Clipboards come it mind. Try standing in a hallway with a clipboard. Even better, stare directly at the people coming toward you. Not only will you part the crowd like the Red Sea, people will probably not notice the magic vest you are wearing because they will refuse to make eye contact with you.

Mariana said...

When I came to Finland, as nobody talk or smile to me in the street, and I was missing it, I used to have a wolf white hat. I bought it in a toy shop. People smile, say something and kids always start chatting. It really works.
I think something in the vest is a very good idea and always sth that surprise people made them approach. But I also understand that not everybody want to wear odd things and be the focus of attention.
It can also be something in the space. For example some circles in the floor where willing to talk can step in and get together.

WriTerGuy said...

There are verbal magic vests too, I think, which are what I use. It's tricky to describe how to find the right thing to say to break the stranger barrier, however; it's different every time (and of course doesn't always work).

Courage can cause magic vestism, don't you think? If I'm courageous enough to try an opening gambit with strangers, or to wear a funny hat or to be the first to step up and try a challenging exhibit, I become approachable. Not sure why.

Bodhibadger said...

I can think of two things that open this door to conversation. One is cat jewelry. I own a number of such gewgaws--pins, earrings, etc. Mostly gifts (people know I like cats, and assume this is a safe bet!) A number of times women (always women) sitting next to me on planes, buses, hotel vans have started conversations based on a presumtion of shared feline affection. This is sort of like Nina's dog observation, but by proxy.

The second class of objects is my fencing equipment. I usually haul it with me on business trips, and find a local salle to fence at. Given that the bags are designed to hold swords, that are intriguingly odd looking to anyone unfamiliar with the sport, and a dead giveaway to anyone who ever fenced. There are relatively few active fencers there are in the U.S. (compared to sports like, say, soccer. Or table tennis. Or curling for that matter. O.k., maybe we outnumber curlers.)But it is amazing how many people "tried it for a few weeks in high school" or "did it for a semester and college." All, apparently, with strong, fond memories of the experience. This has netted many fascinating conversations in hotel elevators, waiting for taxis, or schlepping through unfamiliar public transportation systems.

So--pbjects representing connections to cuddly animals and obscure, violent sports. Both great "magic vests."

Adam said...

I work at a living history museum and often the historic clothing is a catch-22. You are very clearly defined as the expert or the person who should be approachable (the one who will give you an experience). Yet, at the same time, there is a disjuncture since you are figuratively jumping time periods - people have had really, really bad experiences with 'olde tyme' interpretation (see the South Park episode), so they may be even more reluctant to approach you, even though they chose to come to a living history museum. The thing that clearly defines you as a person to approach can actually be a serious disadvantage. It's a fascination dynamic.

I think for us, a 'magic vest' has to go beyond the historic clothing - something like a bread dough, a child's toy, or a horse. Those things might serve the purpose better of allowing people to get past the normal social barrier as well as the 'I don't know how to interact with someone from the past' barrier. These objects are more familiar, less intimidating, and at times, emotionally disarming.

Thanks for the spark in thinking through this aspect of guest experience.

Sarah said...

Joe, what a great comment about clipboards! Its true, I avoid them like the plague, even with my need to fill "survey karma." I had a magic lab coat and a magic vest as a floor interpreter. Now that I am back in an office, I find that I need to seek ways to identify myself for the times I am on the floor. Clothing, silly hats, etc - the name badge doesnt really work.

I always say that once you've gone on the floor, you never come off. I was at the zoo with my family and noticed a lost child. I immediately sprang into action, until I realized I was just a random adult trying to talk to a lost kid - creepy!

I think the magic vest attitude can carry without a physical marker in certain places. Nina, as you said, it doesnt work in a grocery store, but in another museum, even if you arent an employee, it might.

Anonymous said...

I almost haven't left a comment because my problem is just the opposite--it is as though I was born with a magic vest on my body. What I have had to do is learn how to step back and listen more. Over the years I have learned gestures that I use get myself to be quiet in situations where my gut reaction is to engage. My mom has stories of how as a three-year-old I wandered down the street talking to the community gardener. Evidently she spent many hours tracking me down as I'd connect with anyone who wanted to chat with me. Today that free roaming three-year-old would never get to connect without an adult really hovering over her.

This is why I am commenting here: I wonder if the restraint in talking is generational, determined by conditions of where you grow up (country, city)or other factors such as how strangers are considered? I know I am extroverted off the scale: always have been and was allowed to be in my family's household. I easily get how to connect. Given that I am nearly twice your age Nina, I wonder if there isn't something to the cultural sense of stranger danger that appeared after I got older?

This all said, I love the idea of a magic vest for both the transformation it does for the wearer, and for the signal it sends to the audience.

Anonymous said...

I love your idea of the magic vest. It is a great metaphor for the roles that we assume to make certain interactions possible. I am a naturally shy person, but I was a reporter and editor for 12 years - a job that required calling complete strangers on the phone or knocking on their doors and asking them to open up to me like a friend. I had a magic notebook that gave me my powers.

I'm also struck by how many people in the social computing space claim to be awkward - or feel awkward - at things like business mixers and the like. And yet people I know who are adept at chamber of commerce gatherings are stilted and awkward on Twitter.

Anonymous said...

As a Museum Educator, I find that the Magic Vest not only makes me more approachable or safe, it actually affects my disposition. No matter how I feel--headache, sad, agitated, worried--the Magic Vest is the ON button to the perky, articulate, fun Edutainer.

Nina Simon said...

These comments are so delightful, thoughtful, and interesting!

Writerguy, I'd love to spend some time with you and learn your best "museum pickup lines." Maybe we could do an outing and related post, a kind of anthropological study. Maybe we'll get Susan to come with us and we can record her in action too.

I really identify with Elizabeth's "magic notebook" comment about being a journalist. I explicitly started this blog to find my way into conversations that I was too timid to join at conferences. Conferences used to be MISERABLE for me. This blog has been a magic object from the start, a reason to pick up the phone or write emails to people I've never met. I feel like I have something to give now, and that makes me feel comfortable making an "ask." One of my personal quests is to find magic objects that people can use at conferences to get into conversations and not have the lonely experiences I had for several years pre-blog.

Sometimes you don't just need to look open and friendly--you need a reason for engagement. Of course, some reasons (clipboards) are less appealing than others (bread dough). What would be a good reason to take with you--as a visitor, a conference goer, whatever--that would motivate you to talk to strangers?

Lorna said...

:) your experience rings true for me, i started out in museums on the floor with a badge rather than a vest (vest would have been even better - so much more visible).
There are times i've been surprised by the bus driver or the shopkeeper calling me by my name when I've forgotten to take off my badge, so it works the other way round too!
I think a big smile goes some way to working magic, i also have a magic baby that i carry...

Anonymous said...

Nina, how well you've captured the experience! We just had vacation week here in MA and I was in the blue vest more than usual. It was magical! In the midst of the busy museum I was easy for the visitors to find, and I could ‘safely’ initiate interactions and conversations.

I also find that when I’m carrying tools it piques visitor curiosity. There is a lot of interest in watching simple exhibit repairs. They also get the thrill of ‘looking inside’ and ‘behind the scenes’.

At conferences I’ve found, accidentally, that if I’m carrying or wearing a small manipulative or creation from a workshop it will prompt conversations. I particularly remember a pinhole viewer and a Wisconsin Fast Plant necklace.

I also agree with Lorna about a big smile . . . it is safe and contagious!



David K said...

Since I am focused mostly on technology these days, I find that I am asking myself how an exhibition interactive or Twitter feed can "wear the magic vest." As Nina points out, "Sometimes you don't just need to look open and friendly--you need a reason for engagement... What would... motivate you to talk to strangers?"

[Note that Nina's original post was on how the magic vest enabled her to safely approach strangers... not how it helped strangers approach her. In cyberspace, it is usually the stranger who approaches us; so, how can we attract them and telegraphic that it is safe and desirable for them to approach us?]

As WriTer Guy suggests, it is probably a lot like what attract each of us to people in "real life." A sense of humor. An open smile. Demonstration of value (unique skills) and mutual interest (in the physical world, we demonstrate this by "mirroring" body language). Interesting/unique/flashy clothes and jewelry (pick up artists call this "peacocking").

Can we translate these real world elements affectively via Twitter (where retweets and replies may allow us project virtual smiles as well as demonstrate interest and "mirror" content?) What about avatars in virtual worlds... Would it be better to dress them in flashy clothes with outrageous headgear?

If anyone has experimented successfully in this area, I'd love to hear more about it.

Anonymous said...

My Museum ID badge is like a license to kibitz.

Preeti said...

Interesting thread of conversation. I just wanted to share my story as related to the red apron, the uniform of our Explainers at the NY Hall of Science.

I have worked here for about 20 years and started my time here as an Explainer. I wore the red apron for five years before I moved into full-time work. At the time, I found the apron to be useful but it did signify a status as a floor staff. People knew to ask me stuff about the science center. I did, however, participate in meetings where we discussed whether we should change our uniforms to T-shirts or lab coats, etc. We decided to keep the apron. Last year, as part of study, I decided to put on the apron after many years and go the exhibits and interact with visitors. As I walked down the staircase, I was arrested with a sudden fear and anxiety. I tried to explain it to myself. I was intimately familiar with the exhibits, and I often interact with visitors at this set of exhibits on my way to meeting crossing the museum floor. Usually I have my name tag and a set of keys which identify me as staff. I comfortably interact with visitors. Why then, with this apron on, was I feeling anxious. I realized it was because now I hadn't just put on an apron, I actually put on a "role" or an "identity". People would see me in the red apron and knew they could ask me anything and it was my job to help them, to be accountable to them. It is how I knew they would view me, as someone who is supposed to work with them, that made me anxious.

Well, a few minutes, interacting with visitors, I totally lost all of the anxiety and fell into a groove...I was in an environment where I felt fluent.

But wow, that red apron, what meaning it has for me.

On a different occasion, I would love to share more stories about the red apron and how it influences group identity here at the NY Hall of Science.


Anonymous said...

Topical and timely as ever for us, Nina. We've been talking about offering visitors and volunteers a visit to a "costume chest." It would be full of hats, goggles, and lab kaffiyehs (i kid, kind of), and other get-ups. But how to keep it all clean and hygienic? Maybe we'll just go with a variety of big, colorful temporary tattoos: "I heart Tesla" "WTFibonacci?" etc.

Peregrine Project Member (Nick M.) said...

In complete contrast to the magic vest, I have an Invisibility Vest which makes it easy for people to talk to me. Let me explain. . .
I run a peregrine falcon webcam and a blog which keeps people up-to-date with happenings on their nest. With nearly half a million web hits last year and 7,000+ blog readers a week, we're known to many people in our city (Derby, UK). But our faces are not. At lunchtimes during nesting season there are hundreds or people coming out to watch these birds on our Cathedral, and to use the telescopes on offer there. Most people are keen to talk and share what they've seen on our three webcams, and to tell us what they know. But if I declare that I'm one of the people who set it all up, they sort of clam up. It's as if being central to the project makes them feel less knowledgeable than before, or somehow inadequate. I don't hide my council coat and badge but because they don't know who I am, or my involvement in the project, they can share more with me than if they did.
The irony is that I'm no expert - just in the right place at the right time - and many of the people I meet know as much if not more than I do.
And if you want to see them for yourself:

Liz said...

Being pregnant makes you "safe to talk to" because everyone wants to know how far along are you and if it's a boy or a girl. Same with carrying around a baby, or when two babies are looking at each other. Kids pick up on this too, if you are someone's mom, you are probably ok to talk to.

Jay Cousins said...

I like the magic vest analogy, it's a great conversational technology. I've done a couple of experiments in this space you may also want to check out What we need are common identifiers that identify us as safe, OK and rational individuals to penetrate the overriding media distributed preconceptions that we're all dangerous nutters just waiting for someone to tip the balance with "hello"

Nina Simon said...

Thanks so much for sharing those links. You're right--and we need those objects for everyday social situations, not just anointed events and safe spaces. The "tag your laptop" post is interesting--I have a piece of art on the back of my laptop, and it always starts conversations with people, especially airline security folks (who are so rarely allowed to engage in human ways with the people who walk past them!). I like how the sticker humanizes an object in a beautiful way that makes new connections. I guess that's what good art can do.

Lord DoomRater said...

I found my "magic vest" experience at an anime convention. It wasn't until I attended a seminar that I realized how much easier it was going to be to talk with people there. It turns out it's the same way at Video Game Expos- there is a common interest that people are willing to talk about in places like that. And the best part was that I didn't really even need to dress up for the occasion- just the general atmosphere there is different enough that seemingly strange things are considered commonplace.

livejasmin said...

nice share you have here, keep up the good work !

Sabra said...

[furiously scribbling notes both for work and any applicability in my post-divorce dating life....]

Liz's comment about kids reminds me of the days when kids roamed the neighborhood, or a beach, or a park -- and when one kid met another kid they'd say "wanna play" and fun would ensue. There was an assumption of a shared goal. Based on sheer kidness. "I like hanging upside down from swings; you're a kid; you must like that too."

Adults are guarded, quirky, prickly, opinionated creatures. They often need to feel "safe" to approach a stranger; don't want to share some insight about the giant walk-through heart exhibit and get a glare or stare in response. (Kind of like post-divorce dating... I've always thought I need a big button that says "ASK ME ABOUT BEING SINGLE" since the assumption is if I have two kids I'm married.)

I wouldn't put on a vest, but if you gave me a "gift" -- maybe a "backstage pass" to wear around my neck that meant I was open to sharing, interacting, and that gave me access to something special, or a discount at the gift shop, or.. whatever... I'd probably take on that "persona" experience the vest-wearers have described and would explore feeling like part of a social group rather than a closed-off individual guest.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, this phenomenon is amazing.
I used to be a drum major in an all black suit and silver sequins and it was so cool how people would just approach me with compliments and a little sense of awe in their faces. Like you said, MAGIC.

I've wished I could wear something that every day, but my co workers might start to wonder about me. The registrar who wears a drum major uniform? hummm.

I find my name tag actually humbling because it's not my pleasure to wear it often as I'm back with the collection and hardly ever in the visitor's side of things... It's also humbling because I forget to wear it and there are many docents who still don't know my name after 3 years.

ebarclay413 said...

i have a "reverse magic vest" story to share. as a drug counselor my clients love to tell me how they were able to buy drugs in dangerous neighborhoods without getting arrested or robbed. one young man said he would dress in a shirt and tie while carrying a clipboard and pen. he claimed that the "outfit" identified him as an inspector,code enforcer,or meter reader...someone to be ignored by criminals and police.

Nina Simon said...

What a fascinating story, ebarclay. A good (and somewhat depressing) example of how we interpret people culturally. Thank you for sharing!