It can be downright embarrassing for some concepts only to dawn on you by your mid-30s; especially the ones that surface as devastating moments of clarity, because they’re so achingly simple. How many years of an enriched, more mature life have I missed out on in their absence?

To learn these notions at all is a personal victory in itself, and far more than a consolation prize, so, happily, here I am, currently unable to let go of the idea of “familiarity”, and its significance in various contexts.

It’s probably most noticeable in our relationships with people. You don’t become best friends with or marry someone the day you meet them. Both of you know, without questioning it, that there’s an order to these things. A tried and true format that, if challenged or manipulated beyond its natural state, will lead to at least one prickly conversation down the line.

If you spend every waking moment with a new partner, the relationship becomes stale. If you meet once a year, you may as well be strangers each time.

“I was so excited I think I just overdosed on him, we need time apart.”
“She doesn’t even touch base any more. Are we even friends?”

With a healthy running cadence over time, healthy relationships develop, as the familiarity increases. You become comfortable saying more, and maybe ultimately you can’t even envisage a world without this person.

I’ve witnessed the effect of familiarity during the coronavirus pandemic. I wore a face mask from the outset, and will continue to for a while as I’m a carer for my dad, and a mild asthmatic myself.

As I started doing this, a couple of people laughed, and more than a couple stared. That type of encounter paled over time, once everyone had become fully acquainted with the “new normal”.

As we sit at the tail-end of the current (and hopefully only) wave of infection, I hear stories of people who are one week aghast at the idea of family and friends embracing, then the next week doing the very same themselves.

A few months ago I would have seen this as a double standard and selfish behaviour. But in an objective and non-judgemental way, I realise that “aghast” is simply step one along the path of becoming familiar with the idea that we’re OK to hug people, whether it’s safe or not. The more evidence of the same you see around you, the more likely the scales in your own mind will tip in its favour.

The only reason I might have patted myself on the back for sticking to my own slightly more strict rulebook (barring the odd thoughtless, moronic mistake), is that I work alone, and choose not to watch the news. With barely anyone else’s behaviour to use as an anchor point for my own, no wonder I’ve found distancing easy.

And I have the highest hopes I’m wrong for being stricter than others or having wished for similar behaviour. Normality is needed far more by others than me, as I sit here on my high horse distancing naturally most of the time anyway.

So no, I try not to judge people even slightly as much as I once did. If someone hears a joke as old as the hills for the first time, they might laugh, while everyone else rolls their eyes. If something naïve or blunt is said around a non-binary person, it shouldn’t mean social exile, only that time is all some people need to become familiar with “new” identities.

At any moment, we’re all suspended at an idiosyncratic point along our path to understanding the world we’re living in. Punishing others for being a chapter behind on the reading list is ludicrous. If an antiquated idea exists at all, it was viewed as legitimate once upon a time. The little ridges separating different ideas are in fact all there is to establish or reinforce identity. These differences are what makes the world an interesting place, but rely upon acceptance, which in turn relies upon a healthy and open forum to breed that familiarity.

Artists who’ve read this far: the crux of this post is for you.

In the absence of truth, familiarity is the next best thing.

Marketing companies have known this for decades, and as nefarious as it sounds, it’s absolutely necessary to take advantage of this idea if your job is to sell. Your job as an artist is to sell to people who don’t know you, unless you’re planning to make a living off family and friends (TL;DR – you can’t). If you’ve cracked the selling part, the rest of the time you’re not really working at all, are you?

I’m not telling you to lie. Most of your potential customer base just don’t know you yet, so there is an absence of truth, a rift, and plenty of uncertainty, like it or not.

This is why you can’t float an advert out to the masses, describing what you do, how much it costs and how to get in touch. Even your apparently realistic hopes of seeing 3% get in touch and 10% of those follow through will likely be dashed. As I said at the start, who marries someone at first sight?

Advertise multiple times, but don’t ask anything of anyone to begin with. Get to know your customer base. Start conversations. Familiarity breeds a level of trust. Those who become familiar enough with you to use your service, TREAT THE CRAP OUT OF THEM! That’s how to gain repeat customers who trust you, and positive word-of-mouth.

And with word-of-mouth, here’s the kicker…a friend’s recommendation is far more significant than a stranger’s. You know why, don’t you. Fami…

Correct! I do prattle on, don’t I. And as if to prove the point of this entire post, as I type I feel like the first person to ever have these thoughts. The ideas at stake have been around forever, I just wasn’t familiar with them.

Learn what it means for you, your ideas, and other people’s ideas to be known and cultivated first, before you judge or let people judge you. If you’re forced to make a black-and-white decision without enough information, you’ll stick to what you know.

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