Beyond Small Talk: Feeling Included Starts With an Invitation

by Julie Pham

In case you ever forget it’s your birthday, Google will remind you when you go to do an online search. Some retailers seem to know us better than our own relatives and friends. We open our email inbox to find a slew of well wishes from our favorite shops and organizations.  

Beyond birthdays, we receive personalized suggestions on what we should consider buying, based on previous purchases. Facebook enables those in my network to “like”  my updates and invite me to events. Technology has made it easy to mimic the small gestures that can amplify a real sense of community, but does it really make us feel included?

This month’s “Beyond Small Talk” focuses on the question: What does it mean to feel included? This is a question that holds a special significance today as our city grapples with growth and continues to add some 50 newcomers every day.

This question on inclusion is intentionally broad. The person answering can define “feel” and “included” however they want, and choose to fill in the missing “by whom”.

This question was created by an Ion team as their guiding research question. Quick reminder: many of the questions I’ll discuss in “Beyond Small Talk” come from real conversations had among Ion Collaborators, a civic leadership program bringing together tech, government and community-based organizations through the  Washington Technology Industry Association. Each Ion team focused on a specific question, which guided their community research.

One Ion team posed this question to representatives from 18 diverse organizations, including Uplift DAWAH – Seattle, Asian Counselling and Referral Services, Greater Seattle Business Association and F5 Networks. The answers were wide-ranging, but two recurring themes on inclusion began to emerge. Respondents provided examples of inclusion in the form of others making “small gestures” and extending “invitations.”

People spoke about being welcomed at an event where someone remembered their name, correctly pronounced it and remembered their preferences from an earlier meeting. Inclusion felt like someone taking the time to ask questions about what they were good at and how they wanted to contribute in a team or group setting.  

The impact of a personal invitation and a response

This Ion Collaborators team ended up designing a project that used a small-group story sharing format called, “Bonfire.” An important step in this project is the intentional act of inviting specific people to share their stories. People are more likely to say yes if they receive a personal invitation rather than an open call for volunteers.

The pilot event was held at the Seattle Central Library. The Ion team targeted their invitations to potential speakers who might not be seen as the kind of people who would typically be asked to get on a stage and share their story. One woman responded to the invitation with:

Wow, thank you so much for thinking of me! I’m not usually described as unique and/or awesome, so what a nice note to receive. Are you sure you got the right person? I’d be honored to participate in this and share my “memoir”.

The team intentionally did not do an anonymous call for volunteer story sharers. In a mass invitation, the invitee carries the burden of saying yes. In a personal invitation, the inviter is the one taking more of a risk because the invitee may say no. While technology makes it convenient for us to simulate personalized “small gestures,” nothing beats a real invitation. By the way, if you’re looking for a new exercise to practice inclusion in your own organization or community, you should try out Bonfire-the template is open for anyone to use.

As a community builder, I organize a lot of events and send out invitations to dozens of people to any one event. Often times, I don’t expect a reply. Lately, I’ve been noticing some people take the time to respond to my invitation, even if it’s just with an “I’m sorry, I can’t make it.”

I’ve been super impressed by those who are very busy, like the CEO of MOHAI, taking a few minutes to write a personal response. That small gesture has inspired me. Despite technology’s efforts to evoke inclusion, the kind of gestures and invitations that make people feel included don’t often scale quickly. I now try to send a personal response, even when responding to the mass invites, instead of assuming the inviter understands my lack of response means “no.”

Inviting an acquaintance to become a friend

Seattle offers many “third places,” a concept popularized by Starbucks, which is that space between “home” and “work.” Because we have this anonymous “third place,” where we can feel part of a community even if we go there alone, inviting someone over to your “first place” (home) almost feels…intimate.

A few years ago, I realized I was going to so many community events and running into the same set of acquaintances over and over again. We’d quickly say, “We should get coffee sometime” and it would almost never happen. Someone once advised me, “Just invite people over.” “I can do that?” I asked. “Why not?” she countered. The worst thing that could happen is they say “no.”

So, I started inviting different acquaintances who I wanted to get to know better into my small studio. We would cook a meal together and have the kinds of conversations we couldn’t have in the middle of a networking event. It was a signal, “I want to include you in my life.” Many of these acquaintances have since become dear friends who come over for a meal two to three times a year.

I had one long-time friend who kept saying, “Let’s just go out for a meal.” Finally, I said, “I’d really like you to come over.” And as we settled into our conversation, she looked around at my studio, and said, “I can’t remember the last time I was invited over to someone’s home to eat.”

Over the summer, I was invited to a BBQ at a friend’s home. I thought of a new acquaintance who might enjoy meeting the host and hostess, so I asked if she was available to attend as my guest. She told me I was the first person to invite her to a social event in the ten months since she had moved to Seattle. I was astounded because this person gets many invitations to speak publicly.  I would have thought she was equally in high demand when it came to her personal life. I could have easily not invited her if I had I told myself she’d be too busy…and I would have denied myself an opportunity to become friends with an admired acquaintance.

When was the last time you invited a work acquaintance into your circle of friends? Into your home? Or invited a personal friend to meet your colleagues? What prevents you from inviting someone? Or are you waiting to be invited? And what makes you decide if you’ll accept? Why does a personal invitation matter so much?

At our Bonfire event, individuals were invited to share.  The personal invitation demonstrated the inviter’s intentional effort. It also signaled to the invitees that they had a story worth sharing. There are many people who will never voluntarily share personal details or stories about their life. Without a clear invitation, conversation can often stagnate in small talk.  

So, reader, ask yourself the same question, “What does it mean to feel included?” Ask others in your life. Compare and then share your answers.

Special note: We’re recruiting for the next cohort of Ion Collaborators. If you’re curious and you work in tech, government, or at a community-based organization, check out details here.


Julie Pham, Ph.D. runs _ion, a program of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) that recruits and leads volunteers from tech, government and community-based organizations to tackle our civic challenges. She grew up in Seattle, after immigrating to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. She co-owns Northwest Vietnamese News with her family. She loves throwing dinner parties in her International District home.

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