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responding to "What Works:" are we gimmicks?
Episode 3714th February 2024 • PowerPivot • Leela Sinha
00:00:00 00:13:30

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"predictability makes people feel comfortable. It makes them feel known."

Let's take a brief pause from our theme of "Love the One You're With," and go on a little side quest. Tara McMullin's excellent podcast "What Works" recently dropped an episode called "In Defense of Gimmicks." (Click here to check that out.) Leela has some thoughts on this and the way that we might look at a 'gimmick' as a container, or a form, or even a ritual. And definitely as one more tool for finding mutual understanding.

Transcript and notes:

Recorded 9 February 2024.


So I was listening to Tara McMullin's "What Works," which is a podcast I highly recommend. And in it, she was talking about "In Defense of Gimmicks," I think that's what it was called. It was about how a lot of very popular internet content is popular in part because it follows a format. A formula, a particular way of doing things. It's a broader definition of the word gimmick than I'm used to. But you know, we can go with it.

But the more she talked, the more I thought about the fact that what she was talking about was structure. What she was talking about was rhythm. What she was talking about- here's that religion background coming through- what she was talking about was ritual. What she was talking about was, you could expect certain things.

That there's a predictability. You know, I talk about SIEF as a way- that's intensives and expansives- as a way of understanding predictability. She was talking about predictability, too. She was talking about the way that you know what somebody is going to say, or do ahead of time, in the way that they use their format.

So maybe somebody always makes a sandwich, or maybe somebody always grooms the dog. And when they do that, they don't just always make a sandwich or always groom a dog. They start with a certain kind of formula, they end with a certain kind of formula. They wrap that formula around a certain kind of content.

I'm going to tell you a not very secret secret from seminary: we used to call the way that a standard Protestant Christian service is set up, a Hymn Sandwich. You start with some opening words and a hymn. And then you put some stuff in the middle, usually including a sermon. And then there's another hymn and some closing words. It's a sandwich.

And it's a predictable sandwich, right? It's a thing that people can come in and feel held by and feel comforted by and know what to expect. So if that's what a gimmick is, religious institutions of many different kinds have been using gimmicks for a very long time. And it's because predictability makes people feel comfortable, it makes them feel known. It helps, as Tara says, it helps people feel like they belong somewhere. Because they know what to expect.

t on the exact same way since:

It helps everyone know what we're doing. It helps everyone know who we are. And as Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof says, what God expects them to do. Now, I don't know that God expects anything specific of any of us. That's not how my theology works. But I do think it's worth considering the value of predictability, considering the value of creating a thing that people know, that people can know.

And I think this is where- I think this is where we end up with stereotypes. And this is where we end up with the support of expected social scripting. And this is where a lot of us intensives run into trouble. Because we don't really do social scripting in the same way that everyone else does. If someone asks how I am, my first impulse, and my strongest one, is to tell them how I am. You know, in whatever depth seems appropriate for the state of me. And not necessarily for the grocery checkout line.

But when we learn those scripts, it helps people feel less threatened. And so a lot of times we try to learn those scripts we we devote ourselves to learning those scripts. Even though we don't really want to. Because when we devote ourselves to learning those scripts, then we know that other people are less scared of us. We know that people are more likely to accept us.

We know that we're more likely to navigate social, political, other kinds of public and semi public situations, and even familial situations, reasonably well. Where "well" is "with as little friction as possible" except for the friction we deliberately create.

Now sometimes we know that when we're answering a question the way it was asked, we are deliberately creating friction. Because we know what the script is. And we're breaking it. But sometimes we don't. Sometimes, we break the script because we take the words at face value. "Words mean things," we say. Would1 people just please use words the way they mean them?

But the problem is that, "how are you" at the grocery store, and "how are you" after somebody's beloved pet has just died, are the same three words. So how do we make sure that we're answering the question that's being asked? If we want to. Or how do we answer the question that the words mean, if we intentionally wish to disrupt the social script.

The key is intentional, right? We don't want to mess this up without knowing that we're messing it up. And that's so much a part of our lives. That's something we do all the time is we, we- somebody gets back to us and says, I can't believe you did that.

And we're befuddled. We're like, what, what thing did I do that you can't believe I did. And they give us this long explanation of the terrible thing that we did. And we realize after a while, that the terrible thing we did was, do exactly what they said. Or they asked. Or respond to the thing that was in front of us and not the unspoken contextual other thing.

I continue to think that it's somewhat unreasonable to expect people to know something without having told them that that's the plan. But also, we live in a society. And so there are certain expectations, and different people have different levels of expectation, and different levels of understanding of what that expectation might entail or might mean or might require. And it's very confusing, because everything is not explicit.

But if we had to make every single thing explicit, we would never get anything done. We would never go anywhere, we would never have a conversation, because every word would have to come with its own specific, contextual definition.

So somewhere in here, there's a balance, somewhere in here, there's there's a middle ground, there's a way to navigate through. And when we spend time among people who think about these things the same way that we do, we make it easier on ourselves. Which is why I so often say intensives need community. We need to be among other intensives, we need to engage with other intensives.

Why do we need to do that?

We need to do that, because our brains need a break. Every time we have to figure something out deliberately, explicitly, intentionally, we have to scramble to do it. And so every so often, the thing that we need to do, in order to have enough energy to do the rest of everything, is to create a context, to create a space, to find a space where most of the people and the culture around us is intensive.

That's why I've created the membership. That's why I have these podcasts. That's why pretty much every time I go out and talk about this, I talk about finding other intensives, being intensive, being proud of being intensive. Recognizing the gifts that we have, the gifts that other intensives have, the gifts that expansives have; but recognizing also that sometimes you just need to be with other people who are more like you.

And being able to come home to a space that's intensive-dominant, where the culture is intensive-specific, means that we have our own ways of being together. We have our own rituals. Sometimes our rituals are over explaining. Sometimes our rituals are describing in detail what we want.

Sometimes our rituals are knowing that if we ask "how are you," we're probably gonna get a complete answer. And it's okay to get a complete answer. We just have to plan for it.

When I set a meeting time with another intensive, unless it's someone I speak to regularly, I routinely set aside three hours. I mark it on my calendar as one hour but then I mark off the next two hours as buffer. Because either I'm going to come out of that conversation so drained from having been so beautifully held and seen and in conversation, that I'm going to need to rest.

Or, and this is the more common thing., we're just going to talk for three hours and then I'm going to be like I'm sorry, I need to go because I have another appointment in 10 minutes and I have to use the bathroom and eat something before I do that. Right?

It's just knowing ourselves. Knowing what our patterns are knowing that one hour meetings are almost never enough. Letting each other know Yeah, I have space or No, I have a hard stop. Not because we're trying to use some weird corporate buzzwords, but but because it's important for us to communicate clearly about what we can and can't do. And how we can and can't do it.

So when I hear Tara McMullin, on What Works, talking about how gimmicks make content popular- and the content she's talking about is mostly in the like, five minute ish range. But when I hear her talking about how gimmicks, this gimmick thing, this repetitive, predictable thing, makes content popular. And, and her definition of gimmick that she starts with has some kind of twist in it, right? It's not just that it's predictable, but also that there's an unexpected component somewhere.

But of course, after the first unexpected, it's no longer unexpected. Knowing about the unexpected thing is the inside thing. Perhaps in Unitarian Universalist congregations, that unexpected thing is our theology. Which is flexible, and broad and open. Or our liberalness, which is welcoming and inclusive. Not perfect, but we're trying.

But when I think about this idea that this repetitive form can be a thing that makes content popular, I believe that it's because it makes content predictable. It allows us to have something new inside the container.

It's the form of a sonnet. But it doesn't tell us what the sonnet is about. It's a form of a haiku. It doesn't tell us what the Haiku is about. It allows us to have something new in a container that we can grasp. That we can learn more about and that we can deepen into.

There's a remarkable amount of depth in a form.

So what if we are, in the way that we are- what if we are all gimmicks? And what if that's okay? What if that is, in fact, how we make ourselves predictable, how we make ourselves accessible? How we open ourselves up to one another?

Thanks for tuning in. And definitely go check out What Works.




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