Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Museum 2.0 Rerun: The Magic Vest Phenomenon and Other Tools for Talking to Strangers

This August/September, I am "rerunning" popular Museum 2.0 blog posts from the past. This post was requested by a long-time reader. Every time one of my staff members dons his or her cape for a program (really), I'm reminded of this post. Originally posted in February of 2009.

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?
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