The subject of peer-associate relationships has been on my mind a lot lately, for a variety of reasons. I have been a Pelican for almost 2 years now, and that time has involved a lot of exploration into what peers are, how they relate to associates, and how the relationship between the two can impact a persons experience in the SCA. I should also warn you in advance that I can sometimes be a little long-winded, and this is one of those occasions. :)
In general I tend to be an opinionated person, and the subject of peers is no different. For me, one of the biggest parts of being a peer is the role of mentor. It is my job to help people enjoy the SCA, and be productive members. This can mean a lot of different things. For those who are service minded, it often means giving them advice and guidance regarding the tasks they have chosen for themselves. Some would say that since I’m a Pelican, my job stops there. For me that isn’t the case. I feel I have a responsibility to encourage anyone in their endeavors. You’re an artisan? Great, I’ll happily encourage you in your art, offer to proofread your a/s projects, and suggest ways to share your art with others. You’re a fighter? Okay, I’ll check in with you to make sure you’re getting to practice, that you’re finding the teachers you need, and perhaps suggest ways to embrace and embody the knightly virtues. Not sure what you want to do, or just want to enjoy the culture? That’s wonderful too, and in this case it’s my job to help you figure out what you would like to do, help you pursue your interests, and encourage you to pursue your aspect of the dream.
Being a mentor is more than just taking a couple associates and giving them your attention. It’s about being a mentor to the Society as a whole, and offering your knowledge and experience wherever you can. The flip side of this coin, however, is when you start to feel that everybody needs to benefit from your wisdom. I’ve seen situations where a peer has something to say about everything, and ends up not letting other individuals learn to do things themselves. I’ve learned that this is a fine line to walk. When you are a peer, people tend to seek out your opinion more frequently, and tend to listen much more than you realize when you say something. The trick is learning when not to say something, so that others can have the benefit of learning and doing things for themselves.
I’ve also seen situations where peers are taken for granted. Because they are really good at something, people will come to them for help. Now asking for assistance is one thing, especially when you have already exhausted your skills and knowledge trying to figure out the situation. It’s something else to go to a person and request (or more accurately politely demand) that they do all the work to solve the problem for you, and provide you a neat tidy solution. Those of us who have been recognized for a peerage worked hard to earn that accolade, and put in a lot of hours gaining the skills and knowledge we have. While it is our responsibility to help others, it is not our responsibility to do all the work for them. Part of being respectful of a person is being respectful of their time and energy. We should each strive to give of our own time before we ask another person to give of theirs. I’ve had to remind myself of this – it’s far too easy to skip exercising my brain to find an answer, and just ask somebody else.
I’ve realized that it’s not just peers who end up with some weird social interactions, associates end up getting a little bit of the weird also. The situation that has stuck out the most to me lately is that there’s this attitude towards associates who are really good at what they do. I’ve heard people say to associates that they should be a peer already, and what is the circle waiting for. This is really unfair on a lot of levels. It is unfair to the associate, because it sounds like they are less than what they should be. It can also put the thought into their head that they are not being given what they deserve, which can create resentment. I’ve seen this lead to somebody burning out completely and quitting the SCA right when they are hitting the point where they are likely to be elevated. It is also very unfair to the circle in question. Unless you are a part of the circle, and are privy to who they are discussing, what’s being said, what’s being looked for, etc., it’s not fair to say that they are not doing their job. There are qualities of somebody who is ready to be elevated that you don’t fully understand until you are a peer yourself. I realize that this sounds like a bunch of manure, and I thought so myself before I was elevated. Looking back, though, I can see where I started to make the shift from thinking as a member of the populace to thinking as a peer. There is this magical combination of having the skills and having the understanding that has to happen, for somebody to really be ready. There are people who have one, but not the other. Sometimes they gain what they’re missing, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they get elevated whether they are the total package or not, and sometimes they don’t. Regardless of if they are the real deal or not, it’s not right to tell them they should be something more. It’s cool to say they are spiffy, and you think they are the bees’ knees, but that’s where it should stop.
Becoming a peer has also given me more insight into the nature of peer-associate relationships. I knew when I was elevated that I wanted to do things differently than most of the Pelicans I know. Don’t get me wrong, I love my peers and still feel that it was the best possible relationship I could have asked for. I continue to seek their advice on things, and still get the warm fuzzies when they tell me I’ve done a good job on something. I’ve seen some not so good relationships, however, and it’s been my observation that these situations always end up badly for both parties. I’ve also noticed that often the “blame” for the situation is placed on the associate, which really isn’t fair. This led me to the decision to have a two-step process for all of my associates. I require everyone to become a student first, and take the time to get to know me and the people I work with. Once some time has gone by, and we both agree that the relationship is good, then we can move on to a belt. So many people jump into a peer-associate relationship for the wrong reasons, I wanted to make sure that both me and my associates would be happy with our arrangement.
This leads me to the thought of what people need to be thinking about before entering a peer-associate relationship. Now, this isn’t a new topic for me, Gavine and I have actually written a class about it. It just seems like this is a subject that still isn’t getting talked about or thought about enough. Time and time again I’ve seen a peer offer a belt to somebody, and the person is so awe-struck and flattered and humbled that they say yes without any further thought. I completely understand now why so many peers wait for a person to approach them, in order to eliminate this problem. The peer-associate relationship, in my opinion, is like adopting a family member. It’s a very personal thing. You really need to be sure that you get along well with the other person. Being friends isn’t enough though. It’s also a working relationship, and you need to have the same goals. There seems to be two main schools of thought when it comes to peer-associate relationships:
- It’s about the end results. For many people, the whole purpose of giving or taking a belt is for the associate to become a peer.
- It’s about the relationship. For others, they just want to teach or learn. If you want to become a peer, that’s great, but the real goal is to have a great teacher/student relationship.
Now, neither of these philosophies is wrong, or better than the other. The important thing is that you are matched with somebody with the same goals. At the very least, you should make sure you understand what the other person’s philosophy is, and that you are okay with it. If you take a belt from somebody who is end-results driven, and you are relationship driven, you’re going to have a very rough ride. You’re likely to feel that you are not living up to their expectations, or that you are constantly being hounded to do more than you are ready for. The opposite combination is likely to leave you feeling like you don’t get enough support, and questioning the effectiveness of the relationship. The other challenge I've noticed is that there are hands-on peers, and hands-off peers. Hands-on peers tend to be very active, and very involved with their associates. They check in frequently, expect regular status updates, and tend to be very proactive. Hands-off peers tend to check in far less regularly, and generally wait for you to come to them with any issues. Both styles are effective, but it’s important to know which you are, and which you want. I know of somebody who became very frustrated with their peers, because they were all hands-off and this person really wanted hands-on attention. Fortunately it worked out fine, but if the associate had known in advance the relationship could have been structured differently. What this all boils down to is knowing who you are, what your goals are, and what you want out of a peer-associate relationship. When you find the right combination, it is fantastic. When you don’t, it’s really not.
I realize this has probably ended up sounding kind of like a lecture, which is not what I was intending. It has just become very frustrating to me to see so many people struggle with the concepts of peers & associates, let alone navigate the waters of taking a belt. Far more often than not, people figure things out, take belts, have great relationships, and everything works out wonderfully. I've just been thinking a lot about how they get there, what the challenges are, and how to help them through it. I've also been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to me to be a peer, and how that affects who I am in the Society. If I’m going to have high expectations of others, then I had better apply those expectations to myself first.
Here's a question for those of you brave enough to read to the end - what do you think makes a good peer, and/or a good peer-associate relationship?