We have spent the last three weeks in France, almost all of which was in the town of Olonzac in the southwest of the country. We’ve always wanted to spend an extended time in a small European place, and we were fortunate to be given the opportunity to rent a flat in an 18th century chateau from a friend of a friend. Our experience was beyond our expectations, but also for unexpected reasons!
Kendra and I travel well together. We enjoy relying on each other for company and conversation. When travelling to places where we aren’t very good with the language, that is pretty important. Encounters with other people are usually of one of three forms – transactional (hotel, restaurant, shop), an outgoing and curious local with some English or tolerance for us butchering their language and third, other English speaking travelers we meet. All of these are temporary in nature, although some of the encounters can be quite rewarding. Overall, it is difficult to feel like we belong there.
The chateau we stayed in was renovated by a fellow from Calgary, and we discovered that all of the flats in it are owned by other Calgarians. It is locally known as Chateau Calgary, and has become a bit of a hot spot with other ex-pats the residents have gotten to know. The garden, with its swimming pool and barbeque area, is a frequent gathering place. As time progressed we experienced something that isn’t usual when in foreign places … we felt like we belonged.
Coincidentally, while at Chateau Calgary a friend of mine sent me a link to an article about community and belonging. It wasn’t in depth, but it did provide additional perspective on our experience. Combining this information with our experience, it prompted a few thoughts on community and belonging.
Transitions impact belonging because they always involve a change of community, however temporary.
Travel is a good example. So much depends on how we travel. Our normal mode is as a couple, spending much time together exploring, discovering and marveling at the beauty and uniqueness we uncover, and then moving on after a couple of days. We find ourselves in the midst of well-established communities, where we aren’t very successful at joining in because it is obvious we aren’t a part of it. Others travel as part of a tour group that becomes a bubble of imported community, lessening the need to belong to the community being visited.
Other life transitions, such as retirement, job loss, moving and divorce are much the same. In some way or another, our sense of belonging to one or more communities changes or ends, leaving us uncertain about what comes next. When we are in transition, we look for new communities to belong to (new companies, new groups, new neighborhoods) and we notice that the existing communities may or may not want new members. Further, control over membership usually rests with the community, not us.
Questions for a person in transition might include: how comfortable are you with yourself and your remaining support system? Now that everything is different, how comfortable are you moving from one community to the next? How do you keep a sense of belonging in some of your other communities despite this particular loss?
Commonality is the cornerstone of community.
That seems self-evident as I write it, but it is fundamental. There needs to be some axis of belonging. Imagine yourself in a group of strangers standing on a street corner, waiting for the light to change. I’m guessing that while you are a part of a group, you don’t feel part of a community. It can be as simple as the neighborhood you live in, the company you work for or the church you attend. It might be your college class or ethnicity that defines the reason there is a community.
There can also be communities within communities. In our recent travel experience, there was the English speaking community around Olonzac, and then there was our community of Chateau Calgary. Being an English speaker made me a part of the larger community, but it didn’t make me a part of the British ex-pat community. Chateau Calgary certainly knew all of the Calgarians who frequent Olonzac, but it didn’t mean that only Calgarians were considered part of that community. People made friends with locals and individual expats from elsewhere and introduced them to the community for membership.
Communities have boundaries. The question for the community is how flexible are their boundaries? The question for someone as a member of a community or seeking to be a member is the same: How open and flexible are we to something new?
Newcomers need (and get) additional attention.
In fact it usually starts with being given additional attention, often scrutiny. That doesn’t mean hostility as often initial scrutiny is very friendly. But communities need to validate membership. Often the first check is relatively superficial, and if you pass the basic tests you are provisionally accepted. Then as you spend time in the community, the established members are looking deeper, seeing if the new member is “one of us”. The final level is more of a test of authenticity. Do we turn out to be who we said we were?
In our Olonzac experience, being a Calgarian didn’t automatically make us a member of the Chateau Calgary community. The initial questions we got were about who we knew and how we found the place. But that was just initial acceptance. The next level came as we were introduced to a broader community and whether that community accepted us as well. The final signs came more as an invitation to come back and engage more deeply on our next visit.
The key questions to ask ourselves as we are in the process of joining a community are: Am I being genuine and showing who I really am? In a year when I feel fully accepted, will I still engage in the same way? That way we can avoid the Groucho Marx paradox (“I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member”).
Community design matters.
Once a community is defined, it wants to be together. That’s its purpose – to bring similar or like-minded people together. The way we create engagement opportunities is important.
The environment of Chateau Calgary invites community. First it is a defined space. Everyone knows where it is. Second, it is mostly shared space, other than the individual apartments. Third, the common space was designed for gathering. The outdoor garden consists of a communal pool, dining area and barbeque grill that invites gathering. It invites the community to come together.
I can think of a community design that doesn’t work so well … suburban design in Canada. Winters are brutal, and neighbors only see each other in fleeting glimpses, like when we are shoveling the driveway. When springtime comes along we spend time getting reacquainted and catching up on everything that went on over the past 4 months.
The way we design a company workplace matters the same way. If you decide to be a “work from home” business then creating community will be tougher but not impossible. If you have “bricks and mortar” it gets a bit easier, but you still have to think about how you will create community. Will it be a community that is companywide? Or will there be a collection of sub-communities (accounting, sales, production) that don’t relate to the others? What are we designing to create culture, community and engagement that transcend the silos of business?
As I return to work today, I think of the community I left behind in France but I also think of the communities I am rejoining in Canada – my family, the company I work for, my neighborhood, my friends – with anticipation. What communities do you belong to? How do you value your sense of belonging?