A lot of tea enthusiasts express to me that they want to build a richer and more diverse tea culture in the U.S. This post is about my thoughts and recommendations of how to do this. I am planning to write a series of posts on this topic, which I will call Teavangelism. But let's start with dance:
The University of Delaware has a vibrant swing club, which practices improvised dances like Lindy Hop, Charleston, Blues Dance, Balboa, as well as choreographed jazz routines and dancing to pop music. Tea culture can learn some lessons by examining what makes this club so successful.
Both dance and tea have in common that they are things that can become more or less a part of someone's life, and that they both rely on people to keep them going. If people don't buy tea and drink tea, the tea won't continue to be produced, distributed, and sold, and of course, enjoyed. Similarly, if people don't continue to dance a certain type of dance, that dance will die out, and if people do not attend a certain dance venue, that venue will eventually close or start hosting some other sort of activity.
Both dance and tea thus rely on some sort of "evangelism", a sort of "tea evangelism" or "dance evangelism", to spread the phenomenon and cultural practice of tea or dance.
What makes people keep coming to dances?
At the dances I attend, mostly swing dances, there is a constant influx of new people, and a large number of the new people keep coming back and become regulars. There are a lot of barriers to this happening: some of the styles of dance I participate in are difficult to learn, and cannot be easily picked up in a night or two. Newcomers often feel intimidated. How does the dance community overcome these challenges? I see a number of factors that lead to a vibrant, sustainable dance scene:
- There is a continual influx of new people. Nearly every dance I attend has a substantial portion of first-timers as well as relative newcomers. People are constantly inviting their friends, to keep this new flow of people.
- Dances have a broad range of people of different ability levels, who have been dancing for different periods of time. This ensures that newcomers see where one can go with dance, and also have the ability to learn from dancing with and watching more experienced dancers.
- Experienced dancers ask new dancers to dance, and they go out of their way to dance with and talk to some of the more shy people sitting around the edge.
- Experienced dancers take the time to explain what they are doing when people ask, for example, showing how to do a particular dance move, or giving them other useful feedback, but people avoid giving unsolicited feedback.
- The dance community, including both the curriculum of formal lessons, and the casual conversations people have, places a strong emphasis on respecting people's boundaries, making an effort to distinguish themselves from generic "club dancing" with a culture of picking up people. While dance can be a great way to meet people (I met my girlfriend through dance), the emphasis is on human connection, clear communication, and respect. This is especially true of close partner dancing, like blues dancing in close embrace. Teachers emphasize respecting personal space and making the dance fully consensual and respectful, and there is no tolerance or room for the sort of groping and hitting on people that often occurs in dance clubs.
- The dance culture and etiquette favors inclusion of newcomers. For example, at the dances I attend, the norm is to dance one dance with each person, and then find a new partner. This ensures that people mix up and dance with many different people, which helps to include newcomers. It is also considered taboo to dance for a song if you have already declined a dance during that same song--and this rule helps to prevent hurt feelings, making it more likely that people feel comfortable at the dance.
The absence or opposite of these factors can be a barrier to a dance scene growing, and can cause the scene to stagnate or decline. If people are not sufficiently friendly or encouraging to newcomers, and the new people do not feel comfortable or welcome, they will not return, and they will certainly not recruit their friends to visit the group as well. Any group has a natural ebb and flow, and some people will always be leaving any group, so without newcomers, any group will eventually decline.
I have talked a lot with people about what they like and don't like about different dance scenes. The number one reason that people tell me that they do not feel comfortable at a dance is if they perceive a disconnect or segregation between the "good dancers" and the newcomers. People often use words like "cliquishness" to describe this sort of situation. It has been my experience that people who describe a dance scene in this way are the most likely to leave the scene or not come back to the dances.
What makes people get into tea?
We can learn from the observations above about a thriving swing dance scene, gaining insight into how to create a thriving tea culture both in our local area, and in the U.S. as a whole. Most of these points come down to making an effort to invite people into tea culture in ways that make them feel comfortable and welcome.
- Make a deliberate effort to introduce new people to tea. You can share tea with your friends; you can offer tea when entertaining people at your house, and you can give out tea as gifts to people who you know drink tea. You can also give teaware (including teapots, tea infusers, and the like) as gifts to people who have expressed an interest in tea. Also, as a note, although I prefer loose-leaf tea for many reasons (including sustainability), I nearly always carry a few high-quality tea bags with me, so that I can share them with people at events where it is not practical to brew loose-leaf tea, or give them casually to people who express interest in tea but are not familiar with brewing loose-leaf tea.
- If you run a tea business, tea tasting, class, workshop, or other tea event, make an effort to include people with a broad range of experience with tea, and make there be something for everyone to enjoy or take away. If an event includes only tea experts, a lone tea newbie will be more likely to feel out of place; similarly, though, a lone expert might feel out of place at an event oriented more for newbies. This same sort of thinking can also inform your choices of what teas to sell in a tea shop or online tea store. Although every company has its focus, and some cater more to connoisseurs than others, it is always wise to carry some highly accessible teas as well as some unusual offerings, as well as carrying teas with a range of prices.
- When enjoying tea, try to combat or prevent the appearance of cliquishness to whatever degree possible. For example, if you regularly enjoy tea with a group of friends, when a newcomer is present, go out of your way to include this person. Although some people have a natural tendency to reach out to newcomers, others tend to be most comfortable with their existing friends and people with whom they are already familiar. If you have these tendencies, be aware of them and make an effort to check in with newcomers and include them in the conversation.
- Make an effort to be respectful and positive when talking about tea, especially when you talk about people who are less knowledgeable about tea than you are. If you talk about others negatively, it can make people cautious. They will start to think: "Wow, I know even less about tea than so-and-so...I wonder if this person is going to talk this way about me behind my back." This can be a tough line to walk: sometimes we want to make a statement that we think a company's teas are overpriced, or that their products aren't very fresh. However, it is possible to express these viewpoints while still being respectful on a human level of the owners and employees of the tea company in question.
Whether you run a business or are someone who considers tea a hobby or interest, these points can help you to make tea culture more appealing to newcomers.
It can be a challenge to follow all of these guidelines at all times; as someone with a highly critical mind, I personally struggle a lot with remaining positive and respectful of people when I have something to criticize about their actions or businesses.
I am planning to follow up on this post, going into more depth on some of these points.
What do you think?
Do you think about "Teavangelism"? What do you think of the advice or principles discussed in this post? Have you ever been made uncomfortable by any "tea people", whether someone in a tea shop, or someone serving you tea? Were there any people who helped you to become more interested in tea by inviting you to events, helping you to feel included, or giving or sharing tea with you?