Nuanced Invitations in Tell Culture

It’s my birthday today. I’m throwing a party tomorrow! (A cuddle party (like last year) with also a dancefloor (an addition to last year)). Organizing the party has actually been fairly straightforward. What’s been more complex is figuring out who to invite. Or rather, who not to invite.

So first I invited a bunch of really obvious people: close friends and my partner, and a friend who I hoped would be down to DJ for a bit. A couple of friends who’d previously expressed interest in a cuddle party. Who else?

I’m part of a fairly close-knit community, living in an intentional house. One assumption might be that I’d invite everyone who lives in my house. I think, if it weren’t “my birthday party”, but just a general cuddle party like I’ve also thrown, then I probably would have. But it’s my birthday party, so I don’t need to assume anything in particular about the guest list.

I found myself reflecting: there were a bunch of people that I was totally open to having at my party, but whom I didn’t want to explicitly invite. Why was this?

Eventually I came to the obvious-in-hindsight conclusion that I only felt inclined to extend explicit invitations to people that I might otherwise make a point of spending time with. This included some, but not all, of my housemates. So what about the people who weren’t invited? Did I not want them there?

How can we classify potential guests?

  • people I want at my party
  • people I don’t want at my party

Does that cover everyone? Technically yes, but the latter category is confusing. Let’s clean up the language:

  • people I want to be at my party
  • people I want to not be at my party
  • people I am open to having there but am not specifically wanting there

I find it really incredible how untalkaboutable this feels. Like, the default cultural assumption is that if you don’t actively want someone there, then that is like, rejection. The idea that I could express to someone “Yeah, I’m not really super wanting you at my party, but you’re welcome to come,” feels almost bafflingly foreign. And yet that’s what I’m wanting to express.

Part of the complexity here is that for a lot of people, I don’t know if they’d be into a cuddle/dance party, and I don’t want to make it sound like they’re expected to come in that case.

But why is it so easy to conflate “I don’t want you to come” and “I want you not to come”? For one, of course, it’s because we often use the former to mean the latter. There’s also something about being wanted that seems to matter, and that’s real, and makes sense. I think there’s yet another thing: certain cultural assumptions that get in the way.

Ask, Guess, and Tell Cultures

There’s a semi-popular distinction of a few systems of communication. Read more about them here and here. The way they’d work with parties looks something like this:

Ask: “Would you like to come to my party on Friday?”
It’s assumed by both of us that you can say no, and I won’t be offended. Although interestingly, with events in particular it’s often still considered really rude to say “I don’t want to go” without offering an excuse that is unrelated to the event itself (even simply “I’m busy”) People generally feel that they have to communicate that they would “really love to go” but cannot for reasons beyond their control. This norm applies less strongly elsewhere, e.g. food.

Guess: “Oh btw, I’m having a party on Friday…”
In a Guess culture, the fact that I told you strongly implies that I want you there. If you don’t want to come or can’t come for whatever reason, then you respond with something like “oh great, I hope it goes well, [I’ll be doing X on Friday night]”. Something that asserts your relationship to the party as non-attendee. That way I never had to invite you explicitly, and you don’t have to explicitly refuse an invitation.

Tell: “I’m having a party on Friday, and I’d like you to be there [if you’d like to be there].”
In Tell-based cultures, it’s more likely to be possible for you to respond with something like “Hmm, I’m not sure I’ll be up for that. It sounds like fun and I don’t know if I could handle that kind of social interaction this week.” It’s understood that any disinclination toward the party isn’t a rejection of our relationship.

It seems pretty apparent that the kind of nuance that I’m trying to convey (“You’re welcome to come, but I’m not actively trying to get you to come”) is basically only possible with a Tell Culture. But Tell Culture isn’t just about the words. You could try using the third example phrase I gave, but if the culture that you and your conversational partner are operating in tends more towards Ask or Guess, then you can easily end up communicating something more like one of the first two. Functional Tell Culture requires certain capacities… being able to appreciate and care about others’ needs without being bound by them.

Why care?

This is related to self-authorship and getting more of what you want. And maximizing utility more globally. Obviously my party needs people at it, or it’s not much of a party. I also would prefer it to be skewed towards my closer friends than more loose acquaintances, in general.

So I definitely want to spend extra energy getting my close friends to come. But I don’t want to restrict the event to just my close friends. So ultimately I’m going to be doing different things towards different people anyway. That part is fairly straightforward, I think. I guess the edgy bit is actually talking about it, rather than just leaving all of that implicit.

So why talk about it? I think that while there might be some pain and discomfort in knowing that you’re not someone’s top invite, there’s also some really amazing connection that can be built on the trust revealed in being able to share that information. Not that I even have that trust with everyone. There are also people that I think would rather have it be left implicit. I respect that. But for me, it feels really satisfying to be able to articulate my own preferences openly and honestly. Maybe there are contexts that are better suited for it than birthday invitations, but this is the one I had available.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think I actually said this half-invite to many people. I did think about it a lot though, and articulated my thoughts to some people close to me. Even sharing these nuanced thoughts with “third parties” or whatever felt really good.

Closing thoughts: hosting an opportunity

One friend I talked with had recently had her own birthday party, at which she found herself being afraid that people wouldn’t come, or that they’d come for their own reasons rather than for her reasons. My own perspective for my party is almost exactly the opposite. I’m creating a space that I think will be a lot of fun for me, and part of what will make it fun is other people being there to dance and cuddle with. But I’m also thinking of it as an opportunity I’m creating for people, for them to use however makes sense for them. Want to expand your comfort zone? Awesome. Just want conversation and food? Welcome! Not sure? Come anyway, we’ll figure it out.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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