As I get off the plane from Barcelona, I once again marvel at the Zürich Airport. So clean and efficiently designed. Even though the Airport is one of the busiest ones in Europe you can be in and out of there in 20 min. I board the train to Bern, a place I have not been to yet, but have a feeling I will like. The city of Bern has been in my imagination for a while, because as a 10 year old, I had a pen friend from there, called Dalila. I’ve often wondered what she is up to now.
It’s my 28th birthday.
I arrive at the station and two smiling faces are waiting for me. We hop into a jam-packed car and drive up the hill, to a residential neighborhood with a normal-looking house and a nice garden.
The moment I walk through the door, something feels weird. Have I been here before? It feels like I’ve always known this place, as if it were my home. That is odd, I think to myself — rarely ever does somewhere feel like home to me. Welcome to The Happy Bern Lab.
I have made the trip to Bern to meet a group of people with whom I have been collaborating through Amanitas. This project has been “gathering practitioners, artists and designers of [inner and outer] system change to listen, pause and reflect on what the world needs the most today”. Not uncommonly in my bubble of individuals engaging in self-organized, flexible and remote work, I had been working with this group for over 8 months, helping set up our collaboration structures, facilitating online calls, making budgets and joining retreats remotely for short check-ins — but I had not met everyone in one place yet!
So this sunny afternoon, when I arrive at the stoop of the Happy Bern Lab, is the special moment, when I finally get to meet all the great humans I’ve been working with, in the flesh.
What is this place? It’s Amanitas’ most tangible manifestation, a very ordinary, residential Swiss house, waiting to be torn down and revived for one more year before its destruction to become a “social lab”, a place to experiment with new ways of living, working and being. The owner wanted to upgrade the house to be more ecological, but decided it wasn’t worth renovating. Today is open house day at the Happy Bern Lab, which means it’s bustling with neighbors and project collaborators who are getting acquainted, feasting from the participatory buffet, and chit-chatting.
So here I am, in a place I’ve never been before, with people I barely know, and they’ve made me a birthday cake.
It’s all about the invitation
Almost exactly one year since this encounter, I would like to share one of the main insights that I have taken away from Amanitas and the Happy Bern Lab Experiment.
Invitations and how you are welcomed into a space really matter, and their impact is often underestimated.
We had been talking about the importance of “the invitation” and “the who” in Amanitas since the beginning, but it was only when arriving at the Happy Bern Lab that I finally felt what had been a mostly intellectual concept for me until then. The way in which you craft the invitation and welcome people into a place determine the way those humans behave. It seems so obvious, yet my Happy Bern Lab experience makes me think that welcoming might be the most important thing to get right.
First impressions do matter — they are created in the first milliseconds and are the basis for everything that happens after that. Whether you are building an organization, starting a new project or running a one-off event, these initial behaviors set an important precedent for all future behaviors and are your first key ingredient for building the culture of the group (may it be for an organization, a team, a community, a network).
Getting this right doesn’t seem that hard, but the reality is, it is seldom done well:
- How often have you joined a project meeting with people you don’t know and jumped right into business?
- Started a new job and spent your first morning with HR and IT, and reading a handbook?
- Or attended a big tech conference where you are welcomed by an assembly line-like ticket line with grumpy and stressed attendees?
Coincidentally, another place I have learned a lot about the power of welcome recently has been in Aotearoa (New Zealand), with a number of inspiring and humbling Māori teachers. In the indigenous Māori culture, elaborate welcoming rituals, carried out with much intention, time and care, are a central element when people come together or arrive in a new place. A key characteristic of welcoming ceremonies is the “hongi”, an intimate gesture where two people press their foreheads and noses together and share a breath.
This wisdom about the power of the right welcome has been there for centuries and is now being re-integrated by organizations like the Edmund Hillary Fellowship and their New Frontiers Festival thanks to the support from a local Māori tribe (who still practice these traditions regularly).
Imagine a 3-day conference about global impact, with the entire first morning of it spent doing a welcoming ritual.
Having been involved in many types of community building over the years, and being an EHF Fellow myself, I have marveled at how these traditions are shaping the culture of a relatively techy community and how the Māori welcome is setting the tone and expectations for how incoming fellows are invited to show up.
Welcoming into co-ownership
Now lets zoom back to the little house in Bern. Why was I feeling and acting as if this were my home, in a place I’ve never been?
Even after I had left the Happy Bern Lab, this question really stuck with me — probably mostly for personal reasons. As a third culture kid (which stands for a person who grows up in a different culture than the culture of their parents), I’ve always had a somewhat confused relationship with “home”. Not knowing where I belong may also be a reason for the nomadic lifestyle I have been leading and has led to me joining communities like Ouishare, Enspiral, and Amanitas, communities very comfortable operating in the digital sphere.
Out of all of this, being at the Happy Bern Lab gave me an interesting insight on what created feelings of home: not only from highly familiar physical places (1), objects (2), or people (3), but also a certain set of behaviors and expectations (4). Feeling home is quite distinct from just feeling welcome somewhere, something I have learned from being hosted in the houses of so many kind people throughout my travels.
There is an important aspect that made this place more than just somewhere I feel kindly received: upon arrival, I was being welcomed with an expectation of co-ownership and responsibility for the place. I could walk straight in because the door was open, the kitchen cupboards had handwritten labels so I knew where things go and the trash recycling system was explained. I was asked to welcome the next people that arrive after me, because this was a rotating welcome. All these seemingly insignificant details made me feel just as responsible as anyone else there to take care of the house. The way I was welcomed encouraged me to be autonomous and proactive. I ended up hosting a workshop the next day and organized a dinner party.
I’d like to close this story with a question. If the power of welcome, the way I experienced it in Bern and Aotearoa, can have such an impact on how we feel and behave in a place, how can we get better at tapping into it? How can we use it to strengthen the sense of co-ownership at work, in teams, and even geographical identities? Maybe we could also use the right invitations as a powerful tool when addressing global challenges. If countries welcomed refugees differently (including calling them something else), how would it change how they feel and act in this place they have come to?