Forming “accidental communities” with strangers

It was one of those rare nights out where everyone at the bar was raptly a part of the same conversation.

“Okay, okay, I’ve got another one!” I exclaimed.

The bartender refilled the patron’s wine to my left, and the chatter died down.

“If you could relive any moment in history for just 24 hours, and literally be there where it all happened, where would you want to be, and why?”

I asked the question with dramatic flourish and let the thought settle around the folks around me.

“That’s easy!” said the guy next to me. “Woodstock!”

Somehow this always manages to come up. In the dozen or so times that I’ve asked this question, it’s fun to start to recognize patterns or similarities in answers. But while I ask this question a lot, I can’t take credit for thinking of it. I picked it up from another stranger-turned-friend that I’d met in LA earlier that year. While I idled at a brewery, slowly picking at a crossword puzzle, he shared with me the questions that he enjoys asking strangers upon first meeting. I transcribed them word for word, occasionally turning them into a party game of my own, adding in other new ones here and there. This happened to be one of those nights.

“No way,” interjected the man across the way. “Battle of the Bulge in WWII. My grandfather was there. I want to live that.”

The conditions at this bar were ripe for high engagement: Late summer night, local spot, no more than two people in a party, and best of all, the bar itself. When you take a seat, you join a U-shaped table with the the bartender in the middle. In other words, no matter where you sit at the bar, you’re likely making eye contact with people across from you. It just invites free, random conversation with strangers.

“Another one! Who has another one?”

The conversation had devolved into all-out “20 questions mode.” In the course of 90 minutes, I’d somehow managed to establish a new norm at the bar: Let’s all play the question game. FOR HOURS.

It’s so fun to find micro-environments like this, little “accidental communities” that crop up only in super controlled settings. When the conditions are right and the options are limited, you can get a group of people from barely caring to electrified in under two hours. It’s one of my favorite transitions to observe.

It’s why I relish the idea of being (safely) stuck in an elevator with strangers for a few hours. And why I so enjoyed playing “The Intimacy Question Game” with a total stranger for hours at a bachelorette party a couple of years ago. But that’s beside the point.

I never really understood the why behind this phenomenon until I happened to read the Wikipedia article on “community” earlier today.

In it, there’s a section that caught my eye, which calls out a basic framework coined by psychiatrist Scott Peck about the creation of an “accidental community.” While the article refers to the type of bond that you might feel with a group of people that you happen to be with during a time of crisis, he argues that the normative behaviors of any community follows four distinct phases:

  • Pseudocommunity: When people first come together, they try to be “nice” and present what they feel are their most personable and friendly characteristics.
  • Chaos: People move beyond the inauthenticity of pseudo-community and feel safe enough to present their “shadow” selves.
  • Emptiness: Moves beyond the attempts to fix, heal and convert of the chaos stage, when all people become capable of acknowledging their own woundedness and brokenness, common to human beings.
  • True community: Deep respect and true listening for the needs of the other people in this community.

As soon as I read this, I related immediately to this concept. It’s why, after all, you feel healthier after recovering from a fight. And why, when people are “too nice without substance” you feel a sense of inauthenticity or lack of depth.

The “party trick” game I play with asking questions is absolutely and clearly in phase #1 of community building. It’s simply a pseudo-community, a place that exists only temporally with conditions that will likely never match up again. It “feels good” because it still is real. We’re all still present, asking questions, probing deeper. There’s an excitement and an energy to it.

We did manage to move into phase #2 briefly with one person’s answer to my question.

“New York City. September 11, 2001.”

The room grew quiet. That was me. It was my answer to my own question. The man to my left stirred a bit.

“I was here…” he trailed off. “I went downtown the next day, and what I’ll never forget, what the photos don’t show and people don’t talk about…it’s not all the dust and all the debris and the paper scraps. It was the rats.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah,” he continued. “Dead rats. There were dead rats everywhere. I’ll never forget it.”

What happened next was super interesting. The next questions that the group posed got a little bit deeper, a little bit darker.

“What’s your biggest regret?”

“What do you wish you could have told yourself when you were younger?”

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

It’s possible that was phase #3 of this community-building progression. We were forcing ourselves quickly down a path of raw, deep human responses. Each time somebody answered a question, they got a little fidgety about it. Then someone else would share their version and re-establish the group norm that it was safe to share this stuff, all the shit that nobody else was supposed to hear.

In the end, there was this odd sense of knowing without really knowing each other. Even now, less than six months later, I can’t really recall their names. But I do recall their stories. We shut down the bar together and each wandered our separate directions, knowing we’d never reconnect quite in that way again.

There’s a cost to a failure to get to phase #4. You never close the loop and move out into the hard parts of trust and respect. It’s the hardest phase of a community’s growth cycle to be a part of because you can’t get there in a night or even in a weekend. It takes months, of not years, to get from phase #3 to phase #4.

I’ve seen these phases of community related to the phases of organizational development and team-building across companies. It’s easy to meet new people, easy to play nice for the first few weeks. It’s also pretty easy to find an immediate flaw, to dive deeper into that feeling of emptiness and despair when things aren’t working out or aren’t clicking just right.

The hard part is getting out of the dark and pushing for phase #4, with deep respect and true listening. I imagine the teams that manage this right are the ones that stick around the longest, the ones who trust each other to work through the tough spots. You can’t get to phase #4 with a party trick. It takes time and deliberate effort to cultivate that kind of team or community. And it’s really something to see when it’s done right.

Originally published at Dry Erase.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store