(Ed: this is a partial repost from Paxus’s blog> funologist.org)
Éric is from Québec and speaks English as a second language. He was very excited about income sharing community as an alternative to the previous IT jobs he had had in the main stream. Hard working, handy and politically progressive the early money was on Acorn enthusiastically accepting him as a member. Turns out that would have been a losing bet.
It started with touching. In Montréal and other parts of Québec people put their hands lightly on other peoples shoulders when they talk to them. Acorn is very clear in our printed orientation package which we give to visitors that there is a very strong consent culture here and you can’t just touch people without asking them first, even in this seemingly simple and harmless way. We are generally extra stress this in our introductory tour of the community as well, but it appears Éric never got this tour.
So as he did in his country, Éric held peoples shoulders when he was talking to them, until someone told him that he needed to stop this. At first he did not understand why, this is quite different from where he comes from, and he even made a couple of mistakes after being told. But when one member got really upset with him for this, he realized that he needed to change his behavior to match our cultural agreements.
Then there was the issue of rooms. Éric was helping with the electrical repairs connected to the Heartwood rehab. We were just about to buy the final supplies to complete the electrical work. Éric asked if he could go into one member’s room and they replied “Fuliano is sleeping in there, don’t waked them up.” He thought this meant he should avoid waking the person in the room and gather the timely information in a very quiet way. Only to walk in on someone very surprised about his presence there.
Éric appreciates the strong culture of trust. What he missed is that part of creating this culture here is that there is rigid cultural zoning. You can’t go into someone’s room unless they give permission explicitly. He thought he was being helpful. Here again it took a couple of mistakes before he realized that this was actually quite a big deal to people here.
Commune life is dense. Even in a relatively small place like Acorn (with 30 members and a dozen guests and interns) there are people in public space almost all the time. I am often surprised at the 5am rush hour which takes place in Heartwood, with some folks getting up for morning chores, others going to bed after a long night of partying and still other sleep anarchists who might be in the middle of their temporally shifted day.
One of the most frequently cited reasons for leaving community is wanting to have more privacy and more independent control of your things. We try to accommodate these needs by having exclusive norms around people’s rooms. Mala tells a story of playing tag with a bunch of small Twin Oaks kids. It was quite a lively game with running around everywhere and yelling. Mala ran into her room to escape being tagged and every kid ran and then stopped abruptly at the threshold to her room. They each asks “Can i come in?”
There were other small problems with Éric which ultimately derailed his application. Acorn uses the selection algorithm “If it is not a clear ‘yes’, then it is not a ‘yes’”. Most people were confident that Eric would learn from these mistakes and not repeat them. But the collection of them combined with other discomforts made him joining not a clear yes. Some members were frustrated, because they felt like we were not clear enough. But in the end it was Éric‘s choice to leave, he did not want anyone to feel uncomfortable about him being there. Most people would not have seen this and pushed for what they wanted. It is another thing i appreciate about Eric.
Acorn for it’s part is putting together a list of these cultural third rails (as in “you touch, you die’), so that others can learn from both ours and Éric‘s mistakes.
Building trust is very tricky work. Strong agreements around receiving consent for any type of touching and clearly defined personal space is a very important part of feeling safe in a dense place without locks. Adding to this confusion is that we are a very physical group with people touching each other all the time and breezing into each others rooms. What Éric (and others before him) could not see is that these behaviors had been negotiated before he arrived, they can’t be presumed.