Together in the Moment
Thanks to social media, we’re more connected than ever, but loneliness is a growing problem. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, many community events have been placed on hold and socializing has added challenges, but Rosa Riera argues that if one person feels left out it is a team failure.
I thought that things would be back to normal by early fall. Or back, at least, to something approximating normal.
If they were back to normal, around about now I would be ironing my dirndl, my traditional Bavarian dress, and making my way to Oktoberfest, the big Munich beer festival that starts in September. But things are not back to normal. Or to anything even approximating it. And Oktoberfest has been canceled again this year.
I have always loved Oktoberfest, despite my uneasiness in similar situations. Even prior to the pandemic I would always rather cycle to work than squash into the subway – even when it was snowing –; or take the stairs if the elevators were a bit too full; or reserve seats at the end of a row for concerts or the cinema; or sit near the door if eating in a restaurant.
But I have never failed to go to Oktoberfest while living in Germany, or at least not since I first moved to Bavaria over two decades ago. And this despite its crowding, its noise, the high probability of sitting sandwiched between people you hardly know, shouting to be heard, straining to hear what is being said.
So why am I always happy to participate in this huge, boozy throng when I otherwise tend to find crowded spaces more than a little uncomfortable?
The answer may be that Oktoberfest is packed with rituals that we do as a collective. There are the Oktoberfest songs that everyone knows and sings along to, which the house bands play on repeat. There’s the swaying from side to side together in time to the music – known as “Schunkeln” – that gets more uncoordinated the more everyone has had to drink. And there are the repeated, ritualized, loud calls to drink – “Eins, Zwei, Drei, G'suffa! – followed by the clinking of glasses. And all this while participants are generally dressed in traditional Bavarian clothes.
In an earlier column, I wrote about how the Euros soccer championship could bring about similar feelings of social cohesion even when we watched it alone on the couch. Oktoberfest achieves the same thing in a different way, with people from across society coming together in person to celebrate the same thing.
A couple of years ago I stumbled upon an initiative that encourages people to organize neighborhood parties on a specific day. The German association had invented the “Day of Neighbors” and asked people to organize a block party. It would supply a starter kit with invitation postcards, decorations, and the like, and the rest was left up to you. I liked the sound of this and organized a party for my neighbors. To my delight, everyone showed up, young and old, and we had a lovely evening getting to know each other better. For me, that day made me feel better connected to my neighbors.
If a few hours spent together with others in a joint endeavor can provoke a sense of connection and belonging, companies, surely, can find their own ways of creating this feeling. Leaders can – and should – do something to prevent their team members from feeling disconnected and lonely. Loneliness is a growing problem. Feeling lonely or left out triggers an extreme neural response in our brain. This is a mental drain on affected people, robbing them of the energy they need to stay focused on and engaged in their jobs.
I never gave festivals like Oktoberfest much thought pre-pandemic. I enjoyed them but did not understand the edifying role that they could play in society. I now have a much deeper appreciation for them. With the role of such events now clear, I think that we should incorporate elements of them into our work environments on a team, department, or whole company level.
Loneliness is a collective failure. Together, however, we can make it hard for it to thrive.
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