I recently had the good fortune of being invited to speak at TEDxCalgary‘s City 2.0 event on October 13, 2012, as part of a worldwide series of TEDx events. I used the opportunity to articulate some of the philosophies that underpin the We Should Know Each Other events.
Here’s a copy of the speech that I paraphrased on stage. (Damn TED’s rules requiring us to memorize our speeches!)
I’m Mark. I think we should know each other, and I’d like to tell you why.
I recently came across the work of Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist who came up with Dunbar’s Number, which, basically, is the size of the average human social group.
It comes to about 150 people, and – get this – that’s determined partly by the size of our neocortex. Maintaining 150 meaningful, reciprocal relationships is just about all that our brains can handle.
Within that, there are levels. There are about five people – friends and family – that know all your secrets, that are there for you no matter what. You’d take a bullet for them. Then, there are many ten more that you see every week. They’re your core posse. As you move outward, there are people to whom you would lend $1,000, that you would drive to the airport, that you’ll call up to catch a movie. And at the outside edge, around that 150 mark, there are constantly people falling out of the circle or being added.
Dunbar is quick to point out that you can know many more people. According to this research, you can put the names to about 1,500 faces. But some of these faces are Brad Pitt, or a CBC news anchor, or the woman you see at the bus stop, or the barista at your coffee shop. You might remember their name, but there’s no meaningful exchange. For that kind of relationship, we max out at 150.
And that feels about right, doesn’t it? The number of people in this room is on the outside edge of what our brains can process. Take a look around and imagine having a relationship with everyone here, knowing something about their family, being willing to lend them money if they ask.
Kind of overwhelming, hey? But not impossible, if we put some work into it. Not coincidentally, this is about the size that towns used to be. If this room was our town, and the people sitting around you were your neighbours, reciprocal relationships would probably be do-able.
Let’s imagine that I’m at the centre of a bubble, and the bubble is made up of 150 people. In our imaginary TEDx town, my bubble is made up of you. And each of you is at the centre of your own bubble, but because we all live in the same isolated TEDx town, all of our bubbles are identical. Cozy, isn’t it? I know you, you know me, we’re one big happy family.
But this room isn’t an isolated town. We live in a city of 1.1 million people, in a province of 3.8 million people, in a country of 35 million people, in a continent of 550 million people, in a world of 7 billion people.
Every one of those people is at the centre of their own story, a story that’s as important to them as your story is to you. And with all those stories surrounding us, neocortex be damned, I don’t think it’s okay to stick with our micro-bubble of 150 people, or our macro-bubble of 1,500 people. It’s not good enough.
A good chunk of our worldview is seen through the lens of the people we know – so, essentially, we’re seeing the world through the eyes of 150 people at a time. One night, when I was a little kid, I stayed up until midnight. My whole house was quiet, and the backyard was quiet, and I was convinced that I was the only person in the whole city who was still awake. After all, my parents were asleep, and my neighbours were asleep, and my classmates were asleep. As far as I knew, I was the only person hardcore enough to be awake at midnight.
At the time, I didn’t know about nightclubs or red-eye flights or overnight shifts. As my bubble expanded, I discovered – to my dismay – that all sorts of people are awake at midnight all the time.
Going back to our TEDx town, everyone in this bubble – to a greater or lesser extent – has decided that this is a pretty decent way to spend a Saturday afternoon. But there’s another bubble of people, a little bit down the road, that think this is a pretty stupid way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
And if we zoom out to look at the entire city, there are scattered bubbles everywhere. A bubble for urbanites, one for suburbanites. A bubble for artists, one for welders, one for politicians. A bubble for young singles, married couples, parents, the elderly. A bubble for new immigrants, for homeless people, for jailed criminals, for the wealthy.
Pretty quickly, this city-wide map of bubbles can start to look like rival tribes. The bubble down the street is full of strange, unfamiliar people. And maybe it doesn’t feel like those people are people at all, so it’s okay to be suspicious of them, to call them names, to steal from them, to hurt them.
I’m painting a pretty dark picture, but fortunately, the bubbles in our TEDx town don’t work the way I described. First off, we don’t all know each other. In fact, many of us are strangers. Second, while each of us is the centre of our own bubble, those bubbles aren’t the same. They overlap. There are people in your bubble that aren’t in mine, and people in their bubble that aren’t in yours.
And this is really helpful. When the bubbles overlap, you’ve suddenly got a network of skills, of perspectives. Your worldview expands.
I work in theatre, and I interact with a lot of small non-profits of all kinds. There’s a terrifying moment for nearly every emerging non-profit, the first time they need to create a media release. It happens all the time – they’ve put together a new event or initiative, and they’re ready to tell the world… and then it’s like they’re inventing the wheel. They don’t know what to put in the media release, how to format it, who to send it to or when. And because nobody in their immediate circle knows either, they end up calling someone’s second cousin once removed who was in the paper one time, to ask her how she did that.
Meanwhile, there are PR professionals scattered all over the city who write media releases in their sleep, who would be more than happy to give a workshop or provide a template, if only somebody would ask.
That’s where the overlapping bubbles come in very handy. You call up that second cousin, and they know somebody at a PR firm, who has an intern just dying for real-world experience. Suddenly you’ve got a volunteer with expertise, helping you out with something scary.
While skill-sharing is awesome, that’s not all that the overlapping bubbles provide. Maybe one day you meet someone who lives in that “dangerous” part of town, the one you always thought was sketchy. But they’re really cool, really friendly, and they obviously love their neighbourhood… so one day you check it out, and you find this amazing coffee shop that you never knew existed. And yes, the neighbourhood is different from yours… but maybe it’s not so scary.
Since 2008, I’ve hosted events called We Should Know Each Other. They’re incredibly simple. Basically, I invite people to my living room and ask them to get to know each other.
There’s no moderation, no entertainment, no theme beyond the title – none of the things that usually constitute a successful event. I put out a bowl of chips, make sure the fridge is decently stocked with juice and booze, put out some nametags and wait to see who shows up.
That’s the magic of it – the evening is entirely determined by who shows up, by the weird and unexpected mix of people. We’ve had Occupy activists in the same room as oil and gas workers, politicians from opposing parties talking amicably in the corner. I once had an amazing conversation with a police officer on the violent crimes unit that totally changed my perspective on the police force.
And because people have willingly come to an event called ‘We Should Know Each Other’, there’s a delightful openness. People are willing to talk about themselves, and to listen.
The point of these parties isn’t to defy biology, to expand your capacity for friendship beyond 150 people. Maybe you won’t make any new friends at a We Should Know Each Other party, or maybe you will. But even if you don’t, hopefully your bubble has brushed up against someone else’s in a new and exciting and unexpected way, and suddenly your worldview – and theirs – are a little bit wider.
When I started hosting We Should Know Each Other parties, nearly five years ago, I hadn’t thought all this out. I didn’t realize that my events were just an expression of a worldview – that, yeah, we should know each other.
In my perfect world, all of our bubbles are tightly interwoven. When you zoom out, you don’t see rival tribes – it looks more like a sheet of bubble wrap, but even more tightly packed. Maybe it looks like the surface of a lake during a rainstorm, covered in overlapping ripples, where over here you’ve got a 60-year-old aesthetician in Montana and over here you’ve got a 19-year-old computer programmer in Beijing, and they don’t know each other, but someone that she knows, knows somebody over here, who knows somebody over here, who knows that guy.
And in my perfect world, that lake’s surface wraps around a giant globe, so that all of those micro-bubbles, all of those macro-bubbles, they combine to form a super-bubble that includes everyone.
But here’s the problem – that’s not how it is. Just as our little TEDx town doesn’t exist in isolation, neither do our networks look like a beautiful rippling globe. There are big empty patches. Over here you’ve got the rich, and over here you’ve got the poor. Over here you’ve got one race, one religion… and over here, you’ve got another.
And when you zoom out on that picture, you don’t need to imagine warring tribes, because they’re actually at war. You don’t need to imagine them hurting each other, killing each other, because that’s exactly what’s happening
I’m not saying that We Should Know Each Other can bridge the gap between rich and poor, that it can solve the strife in Syria, or in Israel and Palestine, that it can make Democrats and Republicans act more civilized to one another.
But what if I am saying that?
What if we could sit the leaders of warring factions down in a living room, put a bowl of chips between them, slap on some nametags, and have them talk about their kids, or about how they were bullied as teenagers, or about the beautiful river near their house that they walk past every morning. It’s a lot harder to shoot someone when you’ve heard them recite their favourite poem, and they’ve listened to you recite yours.
And, yeah, we’ve tried that before and it hasn’t gone so well. But if we start here, if everyone here adopts “we should know each other” as an everyday perspective, as a lens to approach the world… maybe we’ll get there eventually.
If we only have the capacity to be friends with 150 people, to know 1,500 people… let’s make sure the outside edges of our bubble are always churning. That the surface of our lake is foaming with activity.
At the very least, it’ll help us see that our Member of Parliament isn’t just a tool of a failing democratic system. It’ll help us to see that the homeless person in our alley is more than a drain on our social systems and our hard-spent tax dollars. It’ll help us see that within multi-national corporations are some really great, thoughtful people who are trying to make the right choices. It’ll help us be a little bit more tolerant of that intolerable neighbour.
Every person is at the centre of their own bubble, at the centre of their own story. And, yeah, I think we should know each other.
So, anyway. Hi. I’m Mark. I throw parties in my living room, and you’re invited.