At restaurant Lenoir, waiters serving tables are blind. Visitors eat their food in pitch black. Through the darkness, they have no idea what they’re eating, and they use their other senses to pick up the nuances of the food they’re tasting. When asked to guess what they had eaten, they guessed wrong.
Every time I visit a group of people — a conference, a party, networking event, a meeting — sight interferes with real person-to-person connection.
Let me count the ways:
1. People are afraid of being seen as a loner.
Every person on the sidelines is busy with their phone. They’re wondering things like “What is everyone thinking of me right now?” or “How do I look standing off in a corner?”
Those who stand alone are the weakest links — or are they? Standing off to the side by yourself at certain moments can actually add a great deal of value to your experiences. If you’ve ever been to a big event, you know that a moment to pause is well worth the imaginary judgement.
The fact that other people have the ability to see you means they might be judging you. The operative word here is “might.” The only person you can be sure is judging you is yourself. “How can I make myself look interesting?” and “What can I do look busy?”
2. People are looking around to see who else they should be talking to.
A conversation can be happening right in front of you, right at you, and you’re looking around to see if there’s someone more valuable to talk to. You’re wondering things like “What else is happening right now?” or “Am I missing out on something better?”
The fact that you see what else is going on around you makes you restless. When you can’t see everything directly in front of you, you check Twitter. “Who is meeting who right now?” and “How canI get out of this conversation?”
3. People gravitate toward bigger gatherings.
The first person that approaches two new stores will choose one randomly, but the second person that approaches is inclined to follow the first person, and so on. The longer the line outside the store, the more likely it’ll get even longer. New people approaching will mistake the longer line for better value, which may or may not be the case.
When we see a group of people hanging out, we’re drawn to them instead of the smaller conversations happening off to the sides. We’re inclined to perceive group size as value, which may or may not be the case.
The fact that you see the sizes of groups creates biases in your decisions on where to spend time. The conversations off to the side may or may not be more rich than the conversations happening in bigger groups. “What’s so fun about that group?” and “How can I become a part of it?”
In an industry ripe with “internet famous” people and an inner circle of cool kids, I invite you to join the blind waiters and engage people without knowing who they are.
Internet famous or not. Big group or not. Sidelines or center stage.
Like the visitors who can’t identify their food, you can’t identify how valuable each conversation will be until you have it.