Super fun secret speaker dinners at conferences can also be super stressful
I'm still pretty new to the conference speaking scene, but pretty early on found that I have a love/hate relationship with one of the "perks" that comes from being a speaker: the speaker dinner.
Not all conferences do something special for the speakers in the form of a group dining/drinking experience. The ones that do, though, run the gamut from simple meals at a nearby restaurant to elaborate secret affairs.
The elaborate secret affairs can be quite a thing. And I'm starting to pick up on a pattern. Show up at a certain time, get on a bus with a group of people, driven up 20-30 minutes away from the hotel, eat and be entertained for an unknown period of time, most likely have some drinks, and then take the 20-30 minute trip back home by bus.
In all cases, the organizers of these events have every intention of treating their speakers to a great time!
My first real experience with one of these secret speaker dinners was at Sunshine PHP in 2014. I had no idea what to expect. We met at the appointed time and got on a bus... to where? All the way to South Beach! Great food was served atop a building across the street from the beach. Beautiful weather. It was truly an amazing experience.
It was such an amazing experience it is easy for me to forget the anxiety I felt in almost all aspects of the event.
Don't get me wrong. I love surprises. You can ask my wife about it and she can tell you all about the surprises we plan for each other. I struggle with anxiety even with things we do as a family but it is easier when it is someone I trust as much as my wife.
Surprises and unknowns are a lot harder for me to deal with when it involves large groups of people.
I was finally diagnosed with IBS last year. It has had quite an impact on my social life. It is only since just before I was diagnosed that I truly started to appreciate the impact it has had on me over the last few years. It is still hard for me to talk about with people in person and I've only tried to talk about it online a few times.
How does dealing with IBS impact me with respect to increasing my anxiety level around these secret events?
Being transported with a group of people is extremely uncomfortable. What if I really have to go? Pull the bus over? I usually have no idea where we're at or how long it will take to get there. These trips can be quite stressful. Usually not as stressful as the trip back to the hotel, though.
Not knowing where we are going means I don't know what kind of restroom facilities there will be. I cannot remember the last time I didn't obsess over the state of the restroom facilities of wherever we were planning on going. Most restaurants are good but sometimes it can be quite questionable. What if we're not going to be at a traditional restaurant where they've decided to do something "cute" or "unusual" with the restrooms? Ugh. Hate those.
Some foods trigger symptoms; not knowing what I'll be eating makes me anxious. Sometimes I'm convinced it is just the act of eating and it doesn't matter what I eat. Still, I get more nervous if I end up eating something I wouldn't normally eat. Point is, not knowing what I'll be eating is extremely stressful.
Not knowing how long after we eat before we head back is stressful. This might go without saying, but when eating triggers symptoms, the symptoms come... after I eat. If something bad is going to happen it usually happens within an hour. This means that getting on a bus again right after eating with a (now known) 30-45 minute drive ahead is extremely stressful.
Unrelated to any health related concerns I also have general discomfort when feeling trapped at a place or in a situation. This is something I share with my wife. We like to have an out so we often drive ourselves to places if we can. We don't drink, either, so if an event starts to go long and drift into "ok, they're just drinking now" territory it is nice to know we can leave on our own.
When you are out of your element (in a different city or country) it can be hard to get yourself back home from an event like this before everyone else is ready to go.
I hadn't brought any of my concerns up with any organizers until the most recent event I attended, the speaker dinner for PHPBenelux. I finally decided I should ask about escape plans since I'm trying to be a little more bold about such things. I was told that there would be people who could bring me back to the hotel early if needed. They'd actually planned for it! Nice!
Once the event got underway, however, I realized that I probably would not have been comfortable at all trying to take them up on this offer.
It wasn't a "people mingling and milling about" sorta situation. It was a "everyone is sitting in a spot for the rest of the evening except when they get called up to be a part of the show" sorta situation.
I only knew a handful of the organizers and I didn't know where they were sitting. I would have felt conspicuous standing up to track one of them down and I wasn't sure any of the people I knew had cars anyway. "Oh! Go ask J. Person You Haven't Met Yet." [blank stare]
To be fair, I have no doubt that the people I knew could have hooked me up. It would mostly have been my own self-doubt that would have kept me from approaching any of the people I knew. But the friction, self-imposed or otherwise, was definitely there. Fortunately, it never came to that.
With the exception of some questionable comedic themes I rather enjoyed the evening and never ended up feeling like I actually had to leave. That isn't to say I didn't start to planning how my escape might look right after we arrived, though. I mean, at 8pm I wasn't sure I was going to make it until 11pm. If for no other reason than being extremely jet-lagged and wanting to spend more time preparing for my talks.
(for the record, more than an hour with a large group of people where I only know maybe 20% of them is considered a long time for me...)
I think it is pretty easy for organizers to not take these types of anxiety issues into account. All the way from being uncomfortable with the unknowns, bus travel, food choices, length of time "trapped" without a way out, to finally getting back to the "safety" of the hotel. There are a lot of social pressures at play and I often feel like I'm the only one having these kinds of thoughts.
"Won't they think I'm ungrateful if I don't want to stay until the end of the event?" "Who is going to notice that I bailed halfway through the night?" "This is an awesome event so why do I want to leave early?" "Really, you came all the way to [distant land] and you can't stay out a little later than usual tonight?" "Is three hours really too long?"
I don't want to single the PHPBenelux speaker dinner or the PHPBenelux crew out on any of this. I've had similar experiences at least five or six times in the last year. I've gone through these same feelings of anxiety for every speaker dinner that has been at a remote location.
I think these special events are great! There is not one yet that I'm glad I was not a part of! I hope they continue!
At the same time they can be extremely stressful for me. And apparently I'm not alone.
A friend of mine, Igor, publicly shared his feelings on the PHPBenelux speaker dinner after sharing them with the organizers of PHPBenelux.
While it has been argued that the way in which he went about bringing his experience to light was not the best, much of what Igor said echoed my thoughts and experiences in similar situations over the last two years.
I am thankful that he made an attempt to shed light on his feelings about this situation. It has helped me to realize that I'm not alone in feeling uncomfortable in these situations and that I should speak up on these things as well.
The big message I took away from Igor's post was that we need to focus on helping people feel safe going to these types of events. I thought he had some great ideas for what might help make these events feel safer to people. Here are the things I thought would make me feel safer at these type of events.
Making sure people are made aware of who they can talk to if they need to leave when getting off of the bus and possibly after everyone is situated would go a long way to helping someone feel comfortable actually going through with leaving if they feel the need to do so. Just knowing that everyone has been told who to talk to if they need to leave makes it that much easier for someone to feel like it is acceptable and expected that someone may need to leave.
In some cases it might simply be saying, "if you need to leave, you can take a taxi back to the hotel, here is the number." Even if it is on my dime at least I have everything I need to know to get back to the hotel on my own when I am ready to leave.
Secret events are great but some details might be nice for people so they can decide for themselves how to move forward. Times for pick-up and drop-off before and after the event should be the bare minimum. Means of transport to and from the location might be nice to know as well. I can see that organizers of these events might find giving away more than this (actual location, special surprises at the location, planned activities at the location) may be tricky because a lot of the "WOW!" factor from these events is due to the fact that everything surrounding the event is a surprise. Still, it would be nice to let people know that they can ask for the details so that they can decide if and how they will participate.
People should be able to opt-out of everything. This can be difficult to enforce depending on the situation (for example, much of the content from the PHPBenelux speaker dinner was not directed by the organizers), but I think that making sure people know upfront that they can opt-out will make it easier for them to exercise that option.
I've been sitting on writing this post for close to a week now. It has been on my mind a lot. I wasn't sure the best way to move forward with it. I've been pretty upset with myself.
I could tell Igor looked unimpressed at the PHPBenelux speaker dinner. I thought it was amusing. I thought it was an act. I projected on him the, "I'm going to look unhappy with this but I'm actually kinda ok with it" defense mechanism I've used so often myself in similar situations.
It wasn't an act.
Igor was genuinely unhappy being in the situation he was in. Visibly so. And I laughed. Right up until I was told by Dave Marshall, "yeah, um, about that..." and pointed me at Igor's post on the topic while recording Episode 15 of That Podcast.
That's right. I have my insensitivity to this issue, even a week or so after the fact, recorded for the whole world to hear.
I see people write about awful things happening at conferences. I ask, along with the other reasonable folk, "Why did people go along with that?" I would have noticed. I would have stepped in and helped. Clearly I wouldn't have gone along with it. I'm not that person.
I was totally that person.
I went along with it.
To be honest, there wasn't much I could have done about it at the time. I could have at least realized that my friend was genuinely uncomfortable and unhappy with the situation in which he found himself, though.
Everyone reacts differently to different situations, but I know enough about how I get anxious, stressed, and uncomfortable in these exact circumstances that I should have realized other people might be in the same boat. Especially if they look visibly uncomfortable.
Seeing what Igor had to say about his experience made me realize that I have been struggling with this every time it has come up over the last year and I had not tried to talk to anybody about it at all.
Thank you for bringing these issues to light, Igor, and I'm sorry for my part in making you feel uncomfortable or alone in this. I should have had your back.