Let’s all cry at conferences

I just got back from xoxofest this year; it was my first time attending and I’m still riding that lovely conference high.

But I cried a lot. And so did a lot of other people I know there. And we were all sorta embarrassed/ashamed. Which is weird, if you think about it, because if it’s common enough that lots of us did it, why isn’t it more normalized?

I cried about pizza. (I srsly don’t know.) I cried about infertility. I cried about mental health issues, both because I was moved upon learning that someone else had figured out theirs, and because I’m kind of scared I have some that I haven’t figured out and should maybe consider taking some drugs for and that scares me even though I’m mad at myself for accidentally buying into the stigma about that and now I’m sorta crying again a little bit if we’re being honest. I cried about all the highs but especially the lows that the other people I met and heard from have had to go through, from terrorism to creative blockage to unemployment to loss.

I also cried about creativity, harassment, privilege, judgment, passion, empathy, joy, transformation, life. I cried because it’s stressful to break up groups of famous people to gush in admiration and then mentally flog yourself for having barged in on their down time even though they seemed to genuinely appreciate your taking the time to compliment them. I cried because I bumblingly said flippant things in a stressed-out low-blood-sugared state to people I only later figured out were, like, heroes I admire and had been subscribing to the blogs and podcasts and tweets and Dribbble accounts of for years.

I cried because I accidentally embodied the worst aspects of white privilege while talking to people I admired about important racial stuff, and I fucking hate realizing that I’m sometimes one of those terrible privileged clueless asses even though I try hard all the damn time not to be. I cried because I was too hot or too cold. I cried because I’m not perfectly “on” all of the time, and nobody else is either, but we don’t always talk about it so it can seem like you’re the only one crying.

I worry about us when we can’t cry

Veronica Belmont had a hilarious line in her talk about how if anyone saw her ugly-crying in the bathroom it was because of striking similarities between her own talk and Zoe Quinn’s. I know exactly what she means, and I totally laughed, but it still stuck with me in an icky way too. I hate that we’ve totally normalized that term, “ugly cry.” I mean, we shouldn’t have to be worried about how we look or are perceived when crying. The focus should be on whatever’s causing the feeling, and not the stigma about actually expressing it, you know?

I especially worry about the men. Yeah, yeah, I’m a loud lifelong feminist and the last people I need to be stressing out about are all those cishet able-bodied white men out there, but you know what? I worry about them at conferences, because society has been telling them pretty loudly for a pretty long time that it ain’t cool to cry, like, way less cool than for the rest of us to cry. Especially in public. Especially in front of hundreds-nay-thousands of people at a conference. And their similarly privileged peers haven’t always been trained to be as empathetic as other more marginalized groups, because they haven’t had to see their friends struggle and cry as much and it still freaks them out, so they feel less supported. Yet sometimes they need to cry too, and I worry that feeling shitty about crying in that circumstance means most of them will try to hold it in instead of letting it out, and just thinking about that makes me want to cry all over again, because holding it in sucks.

Reasons we cry at conferences

Think about it! At conferences we are:

  • …tired as fuck. Everyone chugs all this coffee and alcohol that mucks with our body’s rhythms, and then we stay up until two in the morning bonding about cool VR projects and 3-D printers and political campaigns and racial tension and tragedy and everything else under the creative sun and maybe also some inadvisably late karaoke. We are so tired.
  • …dehydrated. Even when there are free non-alcoholic beverages and water fountains and reusable water bottles, the actual logistics of always being well hydrated kind of fall apart. Sometimes it’s like 90 degrees or your shoulder hurts from the extra weight of a full bottle in your bag because you’re already carrying a heavy battery pack so you can charge your iPhone and/or make friends with people who need a charge and water becomes a lesser priority than perhaps it should.
  • …eating weirdly. Everyone eats what’s available. Even those of us who are usually super careful raw foodists or dairy free or just monitoring our blood sugar levels tend to kinda go off the plan at conferences, because we’re crammed into a specific schedule full of awesomeness and lines at food trucks are long and sometimes you just buy those convenience store bags of Ruffles Cheddar ‘N’ Sour Cream even though you know it’s terrible (twice). We have way less control over what we put in our bodies at conferences unless we go to greatly inconvenient lengths to change this, which usually means missing out on cool conference stuff, dammit.
  • …hyper socialized. A lot of us are introverts, you know? We hole up every day in our standing-desk-equipped home offices with our artisanal coffee and our loud cats as our only companions. We go to coworking spaces or coffee shops full of people and then don fancy headphones to drown out those around us so we can hear ourselves think. We have Myers-Briggs types that sometimes start with I (and even if it starts with an E, we’re still not usually THAT hyper-socialized on a day to day basis). It’s a lot to come out of our shells and interact in a way deeper nature than even the parties or networking events we might normally dread — conferences are where we meet our heroes, our mentors, our aspirations. We talk about important evocative stuff. The first question, as Akilah pointed out in her talk, is “What do you DO?” Not where you’re from or even what’s your name. No, it’s what do you do? That’s a deeper and more intense opening line than your average Tuesday. And it takes a lot to do on repeat as an introvert.
  • …talking about important stuff. Seriously, you end up talking about heavy shit at conferences, especially ones as amazing as xoxo. And with any luck, even conferences that are more technically focused like WWDC are still touching on world-changing stuff, like diversity and accessibility and health and poverty and education and so on. Not all the time, no, but it’s there, especially at conferences sponsored and organized by the good companies, and it weighs more than a lecture about Swift optionals.
  • …we suffer from FOMO. We don’t want to miss a minute of the amazingness of connection and creativity and bonding and inspiration, even if it means we make all these little poor self care decisions along the way. Oh, and we also don’t want to miss out on Tweeting and Instagramming the festival, as well as checking in with work and breaking news events and family in an environment full of other people clogging the tubes so everything takes quadruple time to load or post. We get anxious when that tweet didn’t post or when we can read the three-line preview of an email from our boss but can’t download the full version because we’re all at a conference sharing the same Wi-Fi.

Can we take it easier on ourselves?

Have I convinced you why it’s normal to cry at conferences?

Now think about if we were to do this more intentionally. Think about if we shared tissues and moments and not just iPhone chargers. Think about it like a valve where pressure is building up, increasingly, over the course of the event. What if we were to turn the valve a little to let out some of the pressure? Cry on purpose, just a little, earlier on than you think you need to? Let some of that steam out, you know, like a good old-fashioned Game-of-Thrones-style leeching, if you must.

I know it’s not easy. I don’t know how to make it happen, exactly. But the first tears pricked at me mid-day Saturday. I didn’t full-blown cry until that night. I think maybe if I’d cried a tad during Spike’s talk when it first pricked at me, I’d have cried less confusingly over pizza. I think if I’d seen someone else Spike-crying, I would have felt more comfortable leaning into my cry instead of stuffing it down and filling it with gluten.

So please, do me the favor of getting a little misty when you say hi to me after a great moving talk at AltConf next year. Or maybe just telling me about a time you got misty in a conference setting (or a job interview, or a first date; pick any moment when society made you feel like you shouldn’t cry but you did anyway.) Do this especially if you see me getting misty myself, because even if it makes me cry harder, then it’ll be the good kind of tears where we’re sharing something and you’re telling me it’s OK to be where I’m at in that moment.

And then maybe buy me a slice of pizza or offer me a drink of water and let me charge up my iPhone already. That red battery icon totally makes me wanna cry. ;)