We Are All Unintentional Ambassadors

When you’re a member of a subculture, and someone from outside finds out that you are, you get put into a bit of a spot: you become an ambassador of your subculture, whether or not you have the capability, mental energy, time, or desire to be that.

[Fair warning: I’m going to wander a bit.]

This notion hit home years and years ago, when I was in college and got a copy of GURPS Compendium I. One of the chapters was “Racial Templates” (I think), and an older African-American woman looked at the page I was reading, which was on the other side of the spread with that chapter opener, and made a comment to me that was charged. I can’t remember the exact words, but the underlying thing was “Are you a racist, white boy?”

I briefly said something like “no, elves and dwarves and stuff” and went back to reading. But that moment left me really, really uncomfortable reading game books in public.

We are, at any point, capable of being put into that spot of unwanted ambassadorship.

That’s what gets me about the “read an RPG book in public” meme that happens from time to time. It’s saying “hey, be an ambassador” in the weakest way possible — a way that’s totally passive — while not pointing out all the problems that comes with “read a book that might have a bunch of sexist art or otherwise be something weird that people will make comments or ask questions about without actually wanting to engage.”

It’s also saying “hey, wear your subculture on your sleeve” in a way that some people will take as a challenge to “fuck with the normals.” Like reading Savant and Sorcerer in public, with its cover prominent.

Anyway, I’m getting off-track.

The issue we all face as members of a subculture is that others will judge every single one of us as a whole based on the actions of that first ambassador. If a couple people who were reading comics were dicks to you, mocking you for asking a question about what they’re reading, then you’re going to associate that with all comic readers. Or if you’re reading a game book that’s pretty provocative in title or cover, people observing you might not ever comment before passing judgment on you and everyone who is doing whatever it looks like you are.

So when you’re out there in the world, participating in your subculture in public, you’re an ambassador. You don’t have a choice in that. Your actions toward others, good or ill, impacts the rest of us. Just as my actions toward others impacts you.

This doesn’t just go for people in RPGs to people outside. As a story gamer, someone who is, say, a Savage Worlds superfan who only plays that will see my actions and how I treat people as indicative of other story gamer types. (And these end up sometimes being worse than with non-RPG folks, because it cultivates tribalism.)

[End of wandering]

My point is: when you’re  you’re visibly or vocally part of a subculture, the decent and dickish actions paint perceptions. If you wear your subculture on your sleeve, you’re always being an ambassador. And if you don’t care about that, then you’re actively doing harm to your people.

TL;DR: for the sake of your own tribe, please don’t be a dick to others.

– Ryan


2 Responses to We Are All Unintentional Ambassadors

  1. Andy says:

    Hear, hear!

    I think that explains a lot of the inexplicable hesitancy I’ve had about stuff like this. “You’re an ambassador” is a great way to put it. It’s true, my fears of being a poor ambassador might not be very founded, but this helps me to see them for what they are, and to evaluate myself in that light.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      There’s also another element that I kinda touched one, but again, was a ramble[1]: that I don’t always have the energy to be that ambassador. So when I feel that lack of energy, I avoid those situations; and when I am cornered and don’t have energy, I try to be nice and politely disengage.

      I’m actually really thankful that my iPad doesn’t show what I’m reading on its cover.

      This gets really bad on airplane flights, though. Especially with seat neighbors who see it as polite to ask you questions. I no longer answer “I’m a writer” to people ask, because it leads to more ‘polite’ questions and I turn into an ambassador during what’s typically a stressful situation for me: hurling at hundreds of miles per hour in a metal death tube. :)

      – Ryan

      [1] I started with a thesis and just wrote whatever came to mind, and stopped after 15 minutes.