At EAG London 2022 I had a 1:1 that took a wrong turn and I think this has negatively affected me as a newcomer in the EA movement. I had just submitted my first application to the EAIF and been rejected with minimal feedback, so I was trying to find out how to write a better application in the future. I was looking for funds to do community building in the national group I started in Romania, so I talked to several people with relevant backgrounds (community organizers, fund managers, etc).
One of the people I talked to was a former fund manager who asked me some questions that I found a bit unexpected, let’s call them Alice. Alice asked me for example what cause areas I wanted to focus on, what specific groups I wanted to target (students, professionals, etc), and what I thought would be most suitable goals to focus on in Romania specifically. I was a bit surprised because, although I knew the EA movement had different histories and activities in different countries, I ultimately felt community building involved largely similar goals anywhere. I said that we were a small and new national group and that I didn’t think it was important to focus on particular cause areas or subgroups, so I was just planning to get more people engaged in EA in general (via virtual programs, conferences, etc). We had a short discussion about my plans and brainstormed a bit about alternatives but, even though in retrospect I realize that my plans had many flaws, I felt that, no matter what I suggested, she concluded it wouldn’t be suitable to fund such a project in Romania. I started getting the message that Romania was simply not worth funding in general, and this made me realize that I had been relying on an unexamined assumption all along: that all countries had something to offer to EA and were ultimately worth funding.
Alice had a pretty straightforward communication style that I appreciated as a pragmatist, but that also made me feel slightly attacked sometimes. I knew that many members of the EA community prided themselves for their pragmatism, directness, and openness to updating their views, etc, so I tried to mirror her behavior and asked: “do you think some countries have no place in EA?” From that moment onwards, I felt the discussion took a wrong turn. She seemed taken aback and said “I didn’t say that!”, to which I responded “I know, I’m just asking because you made me wonder”. She then said she didn’t think so, but then she said that maybe, that she had to think about it. It seemed she felt cornered and uncomfortable. We moved on and continued the discussion about my project for a while, and then about 5 min before her next 1:1 she said she had to go.
It might be worth mentioning that I have ADHD and that I also score high-ish (33) on the autism spectrum quotient, having had pretty severe social anxiety during adolescence. By my early to mid 20s, however, I had managed to improve my social skills, mask most of my autistic traits, and today I would say I am mostly functional. I generally pass as “eccentric” but neurotypical and only those closest to me notice my more unusual traits. Still, in situations like this I can’t help but wonder if I did something weird, because it wasn’t my intention to attack anybody.
Why I think it might have affected me negatively
Immediately after our conversation, I had a feeling that something had gone wrong. I wasn’t sure if I was being anxious and paranoid, if it was all in my head, or if Alice had also felt the same. Eventually, back in Bucharest, I decided to send her a message on SwapCard:
Hi Alice! I just wanted to thank you for the honest feedback at EAG. You gave me some stuff to think about. I’m sorry the conversation ended so abruptly. Hope we get to talk again one day in a less hectic context :)
I never heard back, but I don’t know how much people use SwapCard after the events are over, so I tried to not overthink it. A few months later, however, after asking for feedback on my new application draft on the EA Forum, I was contacted by somebody from CEA (let’s call them Bob) who told me he had managed to have a chat with some people from EAIF and had some more feedback to give me. The feedback covered different topics (which I will address in other posts), but the one relevant here is that I was considered to be “too confrontational”, which is not an ideal trait for a community organizer. When he said that, I immediately remembered my interaction with Alice at EAG and I told him my side of the story. I asked if he had also felt I was confrontational, and to my complete astonishment he said yes. He said it was subtle and he didn’t really make too much of it, but together with this other incident he could see how there could be a pattern. I asked for examples but, as far as I remember, he couldn’t give me anything concrete. He said that, given this feedback, my chances of getting funded were probably very slim.
Eventually, about 5 months after my first application, I submitted my second application anyway, after having worked on it with the help of many people. The application was rejected again without feedback, and this time I wasn’t even invited for a video call as I had been after I submitted my first application.
Diagnosing the problem
My first difficulty in this situation is diagnosing the problem. Am I really confrontational or did people create a wrong image of me? On the one hand, I want to be open to criticism and take seriously the possibility that I really am too confrontational. On the other hand, I strongly believe that radical honesty is a prerequisite for genuine cooperation, so I feel it would be disingenuous of me to simply ask what I can do to become less confrontational. I feel like I would be pretending to agree with something that I don’t agree with. The truth is: I don’t really think I am very confrontational. At this point I have many regular members in my community in Bucharest, and after attending 4 EAG(x)s, I haven’t had any other tension with anybody. I have also volunteered as speaker liaison in Berlin and Rotterdam and I don’t think anybody I worked with, speaker or organizer, would say I was confrontational. I think this is a very tricky generalization to make on the basis of a single data point and this whole situation has made me quite anxious and depressed, especially since I’m going through a difficult period and EA was one of the few things that got me excited.
What can I do to fix this situation?
That being said, if I am to approach this problem pragmatically and think of what I can do to improve things, I can think of a few questions that seem relevant:
- How do I figure out whether I am confrontational or not?
- If I am:
- What can I do to become less confrontational?
- How can I prove that I became less confrontational after doing what it takes?
- If I am not:
- How can I prove that I am not?
Do you have any tips on what I could do to make things better? I am really at a loss and I have been paralyzed for months so I figured I would take the risk to open up and share my story here. I hope this is a safe space where I am allowed to talk about these topics. I also want to make it clear that I’m not making any accusations. I don’t believe in free will and therefore I also don’t believe in retribution or holding grudges. I believe in being charitable, assuming goodwill, and giving people the benefit of the doubt. I joined EA because I am passionate about spreading positive ideas and ultimately having a positive impact, and in order to do this I believe we should try to cooperate with as many like-minded people as possible. All I want is to help. This community is meaningful to me because I don’t know any other movement that is so well aligned with my own personal values. It makes me sad to feel mistrusted and I’m willing to work on myself to gain trust.