The Dutch Circle Party
Colleen Burns 120000C4RP email@example.com | | Tags:  femke_goedhart social_media dutch social_business ibm_redbooks
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I love how cultures have their own unique peculiarities and coming from the Netherlands I dare say that our Dutch culture has its fair share. One of which, apart from our “Dutch directness”, our love for bikes, and our constant struggle with keeping water out, is the somewhat peculiar way in which we celebrate birthdays, best described as the ”circle party.”
A circle party (and no, that is not the official name for it, it simply doesn’t have one) is usually held during the day or early evening. It brings together friends, family, and co-workers of the person celebrating a birthday, and usually involves drinking coffee or tea, eating birthday cake, but most importantly it involves sitting down in a circle.
Yes you heard it correctly, arriving at a birthday party you are welcomed by a group of people sitting in a big circle around a table, in the middle of the living room or, if weather permits, in the garden. For every newcomer, extra chairs, stools, and other objects to sit on are brought in and everyone moves over a bit to make room in the circle for the new arrival. Having 20-30 people ranging from 80+ grandpa (who will usually get the best chair) to the smallest grandchildren sit there in a circle that encompasses the whole room is no exception. And, you’ll be expected to be there and have small talk while sipping your tea or coffee and eating your cake for at least a couple of hours.
Position is key
Position in the circle is key, because having so many people there means you can’t follow the conversation happening on the other side. It means you’ll often be confined to interacting mostly with those sitting right next to you or one seat over. The effect is that no one wants to sit next to nearly deaf grandpa all day (“What are you saying?”, “The tea is lovely”, “What??”, “THE TEA IS LOVELY”, “let me tell you about how we longed for peas in WW2!....”); and everyone wants to sit next to and hear from the 21 year old nephew, who just returned from a six-months tour of Australia. It becomes even more daunting if you are new to the group. Because your ”small talk” potential hasn’t been determined yet and getting stuck next to you is potentially just as dangerous as getting stuck next to deaf grandpa, you’ll most likely end up between a nosy aunt wanting to know everything and by then probably dozing grandpa.
Shuffle and reshuffle
So, during the whole party there is a delicate process of shuffle and reshuffle as people get up to leave, go to the bathroom or go for a smoke, while other people seize the opportunity to quietly move into their places. Sometimes you can force things by getting up yourself momentarily, hoping someone else will have moved into your place during your absence and leaving a new spot to explore, but generally it’s a delicate game of observing and waiting and hoping for the coffee to do its job. You can’t just simply stand up and walk over to the nephew to talk to him while no seats around him are available because that can leave you standing in the middle of the circle. That’s a big “no–no” because it immediately attracts all attention to you, causing a monumental silence to immediately erupt, with 20-30 pairs of eyes peeled on you as standing in the circle usually means that you want to make an announcement.
The only time when the strict circle-form is temporarily let go is when people go for a smoke—huddling together in the kitchen under the extractor fan or standing outside in the garden. There, the traditional circle concept no longer applies and everyone simply stands around talking to each other in random configurations. No wonder that ”going for a smoke” during these affairs is so popular, even among those who do not actually smoke at all.
Now this is actually quite an interesting social concept because sitting down means you physically constrict people to a restricted set of people to interact with; those who are within reasonable earshot.
The funny thing is that this concept of circle interaction—where people mostly converse with those in their close proximity—is actually quite similar to how traditional companies work. Everyone is in the same circle (company), but regular interaction is mostly confined to those close by (your department and the people you work with) and with regular reshuffles in the form of reorganizations and people leaving or retiring. Even down to the level of the ”going for a smoke” as a liberator where department and role boundaries are suddenly evaporating and everyone just huddles to stay out of the wind or the rain.
And here is where social business tools can really make a difference. By offering people ways to exchange and connect (digitally) with people on the other side of the circle you suddenly allow for new conversations to erupt. It is as if you are taking away the chairs and telling people to start mixing and mingling. Now why is this exciting? Well it can make the conversation much more dynamic with people grouping together based on common interests and walking from conversation to conversation instead of being stuck in hearing the same repeated story over and over again. It’ll give them new insights, get them excited, get them to meet new people within your organization, and get them participating in discussions they would otherwise not even know about. Most important, it will allow them to find and collaborate with the people they need—to help them do their jobs best—instead of forcing them to talk to the same group over and over again.
So start removing those ”chairs” and liven up the party by giving your employees the tools to break that circle open and move around. The circle party has seen its better days and is on the way out. Sticking to it is holding back your company and your employees so let’s put up some music and start celebrating the new (social) way!
Now only to convince my family of this….
Femke Goedhart is a Business Consultant for Silverside, an IBM Premier Business Partner from The Netherlands. She specializes in document management, collaboration and social business; she is an avid blogger, and a speaker at several events including NLLUG, LCTY, and Lotusphere. Femke is actively involved in the online community and was recently honored as an IBM Champion. She is also a published IBM Redbooks author and is a contagious enthusiast about all things social.
Femke is an IBM Redbooks Thought Leader