I'm sitting on the hard bench of a cafeteria table on the ground floor of my elementary school where the cafeteria is. There's a pock-marked wall. Dark green.
Weird details stand out. I have a vague impression of plastic trays, the light from the kitchen and the voice of my second-grade teacher who has pigs at home that eat our leftovers... And the big table where I sit alone.
There are several tables in the lunch room. All of them packed. Except mine.
I was seven or eight, nine or ten that day. Hard to say. It went on for years.
The memory of pain is distant. I have to focus to perceive that my chest feels tight, my heartbeat has sped up, there's a loud ringing in my ears that drowns out present reality and my nose stings as if I've just snorted up chlorinated pool water. The mental image of that cafeteria automatically sends my body into overdrive--ready to fight for survival. If I'm with someone else when this memory surfaces, chances are that I'll suddenly find myself screaming, crying and/or fighting with them--having blacked out for a moment, unable to understand how I ended up acting like this.
Classic trauma response, as if I was a vet with PTSD.
But there wasn't even very much violence involved. I was only beaten up a handful of times on a playground as a kid (that I remember).
So, what are the PTSD symptoms from?
A few years ago an adult friend told me she'd visited my old elementary school before it was torn down. She said she was shocked to hear kids daring each other to touch the diseased "Arie hole" in the wall of the cafeteria. She described the pock-marked wall I remember exactly. This new generation of kids had hear of my mythical cooties.
And I'd left that elementary school fifteen years earlier.
Because I don't remember much of those years, I have only the facts I have been told by witnesses to go on in trying to trace my traumatic responses to their source:
- I had no friends at school. None. Even though I tried to be friendly. I shared things freely. I was never intentionally mean or unsocial..
- I made deals with my friends from outside school to pretend we didn’t know each other in school in order to protect them from being ostracized by association.
- I wasn't just picked last. I was never allowed to join in games at recess.
- I sat alone at lunch every day, even though other tables were crowded..
- I cried and argued when I was rejected. I was not the quiet suffering type.
- I often sat in the classroom during recess, because I was no more popular with the teachers and I was always in trouble.
- I asked too many questions in class and interrupted to ask if I could get out of my seat to try to see the blackboard closer. I annoyed and frustrated teachers.
- Kids my age never came to my birthday parties. Except when I was seven my mother made a great effort to make sure other girls came to my birthday party. She cajoled other parents into it. I remember the pretty napkins and party favors, the outdoor fairy tea party table we set up. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and even so I was largely left out while the others played. But at least I remember that day, unlike most of the others, which are blank holes.
Those are the things I’ve been told. In essence I was shunned. That may even be all, nothing worse than that,. It doesn’t sound that extreme when written down that way. It sounds like I should have just been more sociable and everything would have been fine. At least that’s what people would like to think.
Why was I isolated in elementary school? Does the specific reason matter? There is often a kid like this--if not in every classroom than at least in almost every school. I've seen them. The ones no one will touch. Sometimes teachers try to help them and some times teachers dislike them as much as the kids do. They're chosen last again and again or not chosen at all if that's an option. They always have to partner with the teacher on projects and sometimes even the teacher resents it. These kids have disabilities or they're overweight or they are visibly different in some other way or their parent's are poor or they're foster kids or they come to school dirty and hungry or they're just "a bit odd."
It seems like every time I hear a discussion about bullying and social exclusion these days the whole thing gets bogged down in, "Yes, everyone is bullied at school. These mean girls called me..."
I'm sorry to draw a line, but no, that isn't actually the same thing. Being teased or beaten up or harassed by some mean kids occasionally is not the same. It isn't okay either. It hurts and kids should be protected from that sort of thing. But it isn't the kind of bullying that we need to be talking about most. The kind that causes PTSD-like symptoms. This is social exclusion and it's a kind of bullying that 90 percent of the population, both children and adults, perpetrate--often without realizing it.
Social isolation - social exclusion
Unlike the inspiring stories on Facebook about a kid who is bullied and then the whole town comes out to support him, those who suffer from social isolation are almost entirely voiceless. They don't have a fan club. They aren't good looking or inspiring. They are the ones who make you uncomfortable, so you move across the room at a party without even consciously registering that you’re doing it.
And adults do it as much, if not more than kids. In fact it's becoming a hot-button topic in leadership training and all types of organizations interested in social cohesion and productive group dynamics.
Here's a real-life example of how social exclusion happens among adults.
I recently attended a week-long retreat in the mountains. It was my second year at the retreat but most of the people had been there longer, for as long as eight years. Most of them had formed strong friendships over the years. The group is interested in being mutually supportive for people with a particular family issue to deal with. The first year I attended I had high hopes for finding some friends.
By the second year, I knew not to expect much. But I went because there were things there that my kids needed.
I'm not a small child anymore and I know that the people at the retreat didn't mean to be cruel or even intentionally exclude me. And yet it happened. Again.
The first day, I made a huge effort to remember people's names. I wrote down and memorized the name every time I met someone new. But most people had been there the year before so they didn’t introduce themselves. They just called out greetings in a swirl around me. I may have heard everyone’s name once in a circle, but I couldn’t see the faces as the introductions were happening. I can’t see faces further away than four inches and they were sitting across the room.
I’m legally blind. And because I couldn’t see faces when I was an infant either, I never acquired the neurological hardwiring that allows people to easily remember the nuances of faces, so even photographs are only marginally useful. I don't have a problem remembering names, like a lot of people with that legitimate problem. I have a problem registering faces.
I know it seems like people would be understanding about the fact that a blind person doesn't recognize people's faces. But they usually aren't. I have been shocked time and again when people act offended at my assertion that I simply can't recognize them, while I'm holding a white cane. I've had people say openly, "That's no excuse. Don't you recognize voices?" or "You just don't care to try hard enough."
Well, yes, after several longer conversations when I know who the person speaking is, I do eventually recognize voices. But when I'm in a group introduction situation, I only have that one brief sentence of introduction that is connected to the name. After that, it's just a jumble. There is no way I can connect a particular voice back to that name that was mentioned once at a distance.
So, by the second day of the retreat I had a list of names. And I had a few people who I could recognize by their voices. But I still had no idea which name belonged to which voice. And most voices were still a jumble because the others rarely conversed with me.
So, let me get down to why a little. My eyes look strange and that's off-putting. Subconsciously. They're squinty and the move strangely. I also can't do those basic social things like smile at a person in a group to show that I recognize them or use another person’s name and make eye contact when I say hello after all. Sometimes I don’t even acknowledge a friend's presence with a polite hello.
As so many times before, my fellows at the retreat soon thought of me as aloof and somewhat antisocial. They began to ignore me. Those few particularly thoughtful souls who initially made the effort to greet everyone they saw in the morning or at meal times stopped saying hello to me.
Is this hard to believe? I’ve tried to explain it before and friends often shake their heads and say that surely people are not so quick to judge. But I’ve seen it happen over and over again and again, every time I join a new group. My friends ask me why I don’t just tell others that I can’t see them and can’t recognize them. And yes, I do that sometimes. I used to do it more. But it almost always backfires and creates even more severe social problems. People don't understand why I am telling them this when we first meet.
And it isn't primarily a conscious judgment people make. For adults, it is a function of the business of life and the fact that social situations are chaotic. They simply prioritize those they connect with more easily. And then when there is a connection with me and I then say I don't know their name, they are a bit offended.
I would bet you don’t think you would be offended by a person with a white cane if they asked for your name after several days of intense conversations. And maybe you are the exception.. But I have seen it happen more times than I care to count. When I come to the point when I can actually recognize a person's voice after either several days of close-quarters contact at an event or several months of occasional contact among neighbors, I have asked for a reintroduction with a name and people go cold with shock. They have known me for a long time, by their reckoning, and the idea that I was "faking" that I knew them all this time is very disconcerting. They feel betrayed and used. The budding friendship ends. So, I have learned to keep my mouth shut and hope for a clear mention of their name by someone else in a situation where i can tell who is who just from listening.
At this retreat, I vowed that I would do things right. I wrote down names and notes about people. I forced myself to focus on pretending to make eye contact by looking joyfully into the blurry dark spots where people’s eyes usually are. I greeted guests at the mountain lodge brightly and ended up with several quizzical responses from people who were not part of our group. But it wasn’t enough. Plenty of times I felt someone brush past me when I had not been quick enough to greet them in the hallway. By the second day, none of our group said “hello“ or “good morning“ to me anymore.
I could hear conversation going on all around me at meal times, but I was outside of it. When I tried to participate the effect was awkward and I often ended up interrupting people anyway because I couldn’t see them taking a breath or see the the focused look in their eyes that people know means someone is about to speak.
On the fourth day, I was sitting next to two other women at the outdoor fire, listening as one questioned the other on a point about a new law that would affect our group. Interested, I leaned into the conversation and asked a question of my own. The woman who had been holding forth turned on me and demanded “What?” with irritation in her voice. It was clear that she had considered their conversation to be private, even though we were sitting close together.
I was gradually falling out of the group. I’ve seen it happen time and again as an adult. Everyone else knew everyone else's name. This was a group that prides itself on being inclusive and friendly. They all greeted each other on the garden walkways outside or in the common room both with words and eyes. They noticed that I didn’t do these things, but they didn’t make the connection to the fact that I couldn’t see them, partly because I walk and hold myself like sighted people do. I have learned mobility well, in some ways too well.
Toward the end of the week-long retreat, I was having a particularly difficult morning. I felt isolated. No one had spoken to me the day before. And that morning the group activities were impossible for me to participate in. One involved remembering some words the presenter wrote on a flip chart at the front of the room. Except the presenter didn't mention that there were words on a flip chart because everyone could see them and we were half-way through the activity before I realized what I was missing. By the time I went up to the chart and copied down the words the activity was over.
The next activity was a dance workshop. It was supposed to make us feel good, creative and free, while we learned specific dance steps. Everyone was up in the middle of the circle. The music was lively. Most people had seen these dance steps at previous retreats. I remembered the painful dance workshop from the year before too. I like to dance and would have loved to know the steps, but the presenter simply demonstrated the steps in the middle of the group without words or description. She emphasized the steps once for the group slowly and then moved faster.
Even the slow demonstration was a blur to me. I had made sure I was standing near the presenter but I still couldn’t see her feet beyond the blur. I could hear the rhythm and I tried to guess. If the presenter had gone slowly three or four times and described the steps, I could have done the rest by listening to the rhythm. But there wasn't time. Many of the participants were kids and they had to keep things hopping. Most people already knew those dances from previous years anyway. I was the only odd one out.
So, I didn't ask for help. It would have disrupted the whole group. And that was why my nerves were raw as I came into the cafeteria of the retreat area for lunch with my four-year-old son.
I approached two places at one of the tables that seemed to be free. “We’re sitting there,” a woman’s voice came from behind me as I pulled the chair out. I looked around. There were clearly no other places left inside the cafeteria, maybe one alone in a corner but not two for me and my son.
A few people always had to sit outside in the direct sun with swarms of wasps at every meal, because the cafeteria is too small. That was hard on me. The bright light is very uncomfortable for my eyes and I can’t see the wasps, so the chances are very high that I’ll be stung, particularly on my mouth or tongue, while eating.
Trying to sit inside, I had been asked to move at every meal. Each time the reason was something like, “We want to sit here with our friends,” or “We’ve been sitting here all week. This is our table.” By this time late in the retreat, all the places inside had become someone’s “regular spot.” And I was in no regular group of friends. I had no regular place. As usual, I was being pushed out.
And it was a cafeteria again. Is there anything more hardwired in our DNA when it comes to social exclusion. There literally was no place at the table for me. I noticed that someone had in fact reserved these places with spoons, in order to go get the food.
"Fine. You all have your places and your friends. There's no place for us." I turned and snapped at the woman. She carried an infant in her arms and clearly didn't want to sit outside either.
The room went dark around me. The roaring in my ears blocked out sound. The cascade of trauma response had started and I couldn’t think straight. My heart was hammering and I was filled with seething fear, anger, shame and grief, beyond anything that is bearable. Certainly beyond any normal response to being asked to honor a seat reservation.
I whirled away then and tried to run out of the room. Some small voice of reason at the back of my mind was urging me to get away, not to have an emotional meltdown in front of people I wanted to befriend. But I couldn’t get through the crowd. The tenuous hold I had on my emotions slipped and I was crying, sobbing in front of everyone.
The woman who had sparked my reaction was shocked. She had simply been asking for the place that she had reserved and she had an allergy to wasp stings that could put her in the hospital if she sat outside. Others clamored around me, disapproving of my outburst and interpreting it as simple willful desire for that chair.
“What is such a big deal? Just go sit outside.”
“For heaven’s sake, you’ll get to eat too. You don’t need to force your way into everything."
"You're a bit overweight anyway.”
“You could try thinking of someone else for a change.”
I could only cry harder. How could I explain? They were already convinced that I was aloof. I didn’t know their names and they all knew mine and each other’s. This was so much bigger than not wanting to sit out with the wasps that I couldn’t see.
How can organizers foster inclusion in a group?
That sort of social disaster is usually where this sort of episode in my life ends. People feel that I have acted badly, selfishly and with too much emotion. I apologize profusely and flee. If I have to continue to be around that group for some reason, the relationship is strained and cold. Otherwise, I never see those people again. And the next time I try to make friends the same thing happens. No matter how hard I try to make it come out differently.
But this wasn’t the average situation. The organizers of the group had a deep interest in social inclusion. They didn’t notice the warning signs of social exclusion in the group, but once the meltdown happened they stepped up to the challenge. We worked out a plan together for how to prevent these sorts of problems, not just for me but for others as well.
And the very first bit of the plan implemented on the last day of this retreat had immediate and tangible results. The group was asked to break up into groups for a project. I dread such scenarios because the groups are always formed by preexisting friendships. I end up either the odd person out or in a group of those who are lackadaisical or disinterested in the project (those being the reasons why they didn’t manage to get a place in a “real” group).
But this time the organizers tried my first suggestion for fostering social inclusion, and the effect was that all the groups--not just the one I was in--were extraordinarily successful in their projects. The cooperation in my group was vibrant and one of the members of the group who had seemed most irritated with me led the group and included me fully.
Working with groups of children might be a bit different, but this time I'm going to focus on tips for teachers of adults, event organizers, teen camp counselors, social groups, working groups, professional teams and activist organizations who want to truly ensure that no one is excluded. Ensuring inclusion in a group, not only is the right thing to do and avoids social unpleasantness, it also clearly boosts the work of any group and ensures that teams reach their goals more effectively.
For now, I suggest five areas of focus for group leaders and event organizers:
- the language of inclusion,
- access to information and spaces,
- relationships and
Within those topics here are specific tips and ideas:
- One of the easiest and most concrete ways to ensure inclusion is to moderate the forming of sub-groups. When something requires the large group to split up into smaller groups either A. split up the group randomly by counting people off, B. assign groups based on the known strengths and weaknesses of participants in order to ensure all groups will have the skill sets needed to succeed or C. ask group participants to consciously attempt to join a group with those they have not worked with before or don’t know well. (Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages depending on the size and type of group you’re working with, but if employed well they will vastly improve group dynamics.)
- Include the “language of inclusivity” in promotional and organizational messages for your group. When you write an email to remind participants what to bring or similar details, don’t consider it corny to mention your hope that everyone will be included. Ask participants to be conscious that some people will know each other and others won’t know anyone in the group. Ask them to reach out to those who are new as one of the ways to support the goals of the group (even if and possibly especially if those goals are simply to have fun).
- When you make introductory remarks in front of the group, emphasize inclusion and the need for participants to help one another with details and include those who tend to be on the margins. State your intentions and make social inclusion an open goal of the group. It will support all other goals, including professional and technical objectives.
- When you print out schedules or programs include a note on them about who to ask if you need assistance due to a disability or language difficulty as well as an upbeat note asking participants to lend a hand when they see someone who is lost or having difficulty. These notes may seem like pro forma political correctness (and they can be just that if organizers don't follow through with other measures), but wide experience of professionals in social work and psychology shows that the goals and intentions we state do have an impact. Not everyone will heed your reminders, but some will and that will often be enough to ensure that your participants aren’t excluded and your goals are reached more effectively.
- Try to ensure that there is enough space/chairs/tables/materials for everyone registered for your event or meeting. It may seem like a small thing that someone has to go without and it is small, IF it happens to that person only once. But the fact is that the last person in any line and the last person materials are handed around to is very often the same person again and again. People hand materials to people they know. And the reason a person is last in line (such as mobility or sensory problems) will often make them last in every line. I have been the only person without a seat or an information packet when such things were handed out at conferences and meetings more times than I can count.
- If you do have a shortage, make a specific effort to make sure that the most socially vulnerable people are not those left without. Those who are friends of the organizers can often help by accepting whatever shortfall happens by accident, because you know they will not be the ones excluded regularly. Like most people, I would be happy to stand or share materials with someone else as long as I am not made to feel excluded by consistently being the one left out, I feel honored to help a friend who is organizing a group by accepting a shortage.
- You can also often get around a shortage by coordinating. If you realize there aren’t enough information packets for everyone (and you should definitely have someone count before handing them out), ask for volunteers who can share a packet. Many people come to groups and events together, some dislike information packets and know they’ll just lose it anyway. You should have no trouble coming up with several people who sincerely don’t mind.
- Places to sit at meals are specifically sensitive to the human psyche. It probably comes from some prehistoric evolutionary pressure in which those who were not given a place to sit at meals were less likely to survive. In any event, not having a place inside the circle at a common meal brings up intense fears for those who have been excluded in other social situations. If you find yourself in a situation where places at meals are insufficient or clearly unequal (with some outside or at makeshift places), consider one of these alternatives to combat social exclusion: A. stagger meal times and let people choose between lunch at 12 or 12:30, B. assign places based on specific physical needs (some people may need regular chairs due to mobility disabilities or small children, those with allergies or other disabilities may need to be ensured a place away from hazardous insects, as in my previous example), C. specifically mention to the group that there is a shortage and ask those who can take the possibly problematic alternative to do so automatically (ask that those who can easily sit on the ground do so at a picnic with an insufficient number of chairs or benches), D. assign seats and rotate them to encourage participants to get to know each other or E. ask participants to ensure that they sit with different people at each meal, mentioning that meal times are one of the best times to get to know others and exchange ideas, as well as one of the keys to the inclusion that will make your group successful in its specific endeavors.
- Hand out schedules and materials for your event, email them to participants and/or have them available for those that want them. It is amazing how many complex events, such as our week-long retreat with several workshops each day only post one copy of a printed schedule or have none. Certainly, plans will change, but the more your participants know about the schedule you are shooting for the more confident and included they will be. Information will always tend to flow more easily to those who know organizers personally and to those who have a lot of friends within a group. If schedules and plans are not circulated carefully, those who are already on the fringes will become truly excluded.
- Announce schedules as well. Repeatedly. If there is no one time when everyone can be expected to be present, announce schedules and changes at various times, keeping in mind that not everyone is able to stay up late at night and some may miss the first morning announcement. Announce scheduling changes at various times of the day. Be aware that large portions of humanity have difficulty assimilating written information and other large portions have difficulty with oral information. Sometimes this is due to a specific disability, but often it is just learning style. Use both print and oral announcements to ensure a greater possibility that information will reach everyone. If a participants roll their eyes over repeated announcements, as them to ensure that those on the fringes get the information. Information is a large part of inclusion.
- Ask presenters to make handouts of what they plan to write on a board or flipchart or project as a PowerPoint presentation. Either distribute them or announce that they are available to those who need them, if you want to save paper. Don’t wait for participants to ask for help with this. Most people who truly need handouts won’t ask either out of a desire not to disrupt the work of the group or due to previous experiences with exclusion. There are a great many types of people (all those with visual impairments, those with reading disabilities and other sensory difficulties, those with small children or medical needs that may require them to leave a presentation for a moment and so forth) who will benefit greatly from having handouts of what may be displayed in front of the group. I have read posts by presenters who specifically say they don’t want to give hand-outs in order to ensure that participants have to give them full attention. So, you may run into some resistance from presenters. Simply mention that visually impaired people can’t see the front of the room and you are very likely to have visually impaired participants (as you are if your group is more than twenty people). Most people can understand this simple connection, even though many others will benefit.
- Make every effort to make spaces and materials accessible to those with mobility and sensory disabilities. Effort counts here because clear effort toward accessibility sends a message of inclusion. I know many wheel-chair users who would feel excluded in a venue that had stairs at every entrance, even if they could theoretically get someone to carry them up and down. They would not be able to go outside on a short break with everyone else and they would have to undergo a public and often humiliating process to get access to the building. If you’re running an event for a public agency or large business with the resources to afford accessible venues, sign interpreters and Braille materials, you must ensure these things, regardless of local laws, or you can’t be considered an inclusive organization.
- However, if your organization is small or your event is ad hoc real inclusion can be achieved with handmade ramps and volunteer readers along with other creative ideas. Even if the solutions may not be perfect, the point of accessibility is inclusion. Effort is paramount because 90 percent of inclusion is about social relationships, rather than physical barriers.
- I propose a rule for introductions and helping participants get to know each other. Always make formal introductions if A. your group is smaller than 20 people and the event or meeting will go for more than an hour, or B. your group is smaller than 50 people and the event or meeting will go for at least one day.
- If your event goes for more than one day, it is highly recommended that you use some sort of a game or ice breaker activity to help people get to know a few others in the group (ideally those they don’t already know). This can be done in even very big groups, although the goal in a large group is not to introduce everyone to everyone else, but to allow people to meet a few others and have some meaningful exchange.
- Repeat introductions on the second day of a multi-day event with more than ten people are also a very helpful. Use humor or use the opportunity to help yourself or other organizers remember names. Go around a circle and call out names again. This not only makes people feel included and recognized, it helps the organizers to know names AND it helps participants memorize names as well. Using another person’s name in conversation is a well-recognized key social skill that means the difference between connection and the lack thereof. If you want your participants to be included and to form meaningful connections and thus do good work, your goal should be to increase the likelihood that most of them will know each other’s names.
- That reminds me. Use humor, not only about forgetting people’s names. Use humor about lots of things involved in inclusion. When integrating the vocabulary of inclusion into your materials and introductory remarks, use humor to indicate that you know these things can sound like empty phrases and to prove that you value them at the core.
- If you must use name tags (which I have to admit are probably helpful to a lot of people even if they are the bane of every blind person’s existence), you might joke about your own difficulties with name tags in order to point out to the group that some people can’t see name tags at all. That is often all it takes, a minor mention, and people will be more aware and less likely to exclude those who can’t read the name tags for whatever reason. Humor can be used in many ways to both lighten an atmosphere and to remind people of truths they already know and might otherwise be offended at being reminded of, even though they actually do often need reminders when it comes to inclusive group dynamics.
- You may feel that some of these tips don't apply to high-level professional, technical or financial meetings. Of course you have schedules and your presenters don't need to copy things for everyone. Disabled people, non-native English speakers or people with family obligations don't work in your field anyway. Consider the fact that this may be precisely why people with specific differences don't work in your field. By assuming everyone can navigate these issues without being connected to the group, you severely limit the pool of talent you can work with. I have intentionally limited these points primarily to things that take little extra time and only a bit of specific attention. This is not about making cumbersome or expensive changes. It is primarily about reaching your group goals. When all is told, well over half the population falls into some category that can be inadvertently excluded. And these talents can be activated with minor changes that promote inclusion.
- Finally, expect mistakes and shortcomings. No organization is perfect and leaders can do a lot to help a group become more inclusive, but they cannot force it entirely. Accept that sometimes exclusion will happen anyway and be on the lookout for it. When I was excluded at my mountain retreat, the exclusion didn’t end just because organizers took note and took some hasty steps to try to mitigate the problem. But it did improve, and more importantly, I became included by the mere act of openly addressing the issue. Don’t be discouraged by the impossibility of perfect inclusion. This is one area where the old A for effort you may have sneered at in elementary school is actually a well earned and perfectly honorable accolade.
Inclusive group dynamics is a hot topic in business and public administration in some countries and the skills to lead a group in this direction are in demand. I hope I can use experience to help leaders develop ways to make events and organizations more inclusive.
I’m sure my list of tips isn’t comprehensive or universal. There are probably plenty of things I missed. Please feel free to add to the discussion with your own ideas and tips to help others. Post ideas and questions in the comments below. Many thanks for reading and discussing!
I developed these tips as a volunteer because I care about people. It's my way of giving back for all the good things in life. My job is writing though. Here is what puts dinner on the table: my dystopian thriller The Soul and the Seed, which tackles social exclusion in a dark alternative reality that reflects uncannily on our world. It relevant to the topic at hand but mostly it's a story you won't want to put down.