Brene Brown: Lessons in belonging, connection in a digital age at SXSW


AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a packed ballroom at the Austin Convention Center, hundreds of people buzzed in their chairs waiting for the opening speaker at South by Southwest Friday morning. Dozens milled up and down the rows, searching for an open seat and the chance to be in the same room as Brene Brown as she told stories. Last-minute stragglers ended up in an overflow room.

“[Brown is] such a positive, affirming, optimistic person. Just all the things that are sort of missing from our world right now,” said Austin resident Susie Spies as she craned her neck searching for Brown to appear from the wings of the stage. “You just wish she was your sister and you could talk to her every day for advice.”

Brown, a professor at the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston, had once famously proclaimed she was a research storyteller. She breaks down powerful and often tough subjects like shame, vulnerability and courage with her penchant for stories and personable charm that captivates audiences.

Her TED talk, “The power of vulnerability” is one of the top five most-watched talks with more than 38 million views on the TED platform and almost 10 million views on YouTube. Her books, that she says she once had to self-publish and sell out of the trunk of her car, are now best-sellers.

On Friday, Brown touched on subjects like belonging, shared joy and sorrow and communication with people in the age of technology. 

On Belonging

Everyone has the need to feel like they belong or fit in with the crowd. Through stories about her own life and her love for author Maya Angelou, Brown said she had to come to the somewhat painful realization that one can belong, but also not belong to any group.

“You can never belong to anything or anyone while you are in the process of betraying yourself,” she said. “The hard thing is our level of belonging can never be greater than our level of courage to speak our truth.”

Through her research, Brown found that the root of the human desire for belongingness is in our DNA but through her own life experiences, she learned that it was important to accept the feeling of not belonging to a group if it meant being true to herself.

“You only are free when you realize you belong everywhere, and you belong nowhere at all,” she said. “The first definition of courage was to tell your whole story with your heart.”  

“People are hard to hate up close. Move in.”

In the digital age, Brown believes there is a dehumanizing factor that comes with the distance that technology can create in human interaction.

She suggests moving in to have a real conversation with people you may disagree with.

“When I can see a part of my story reflected in your eyes, our differences melt away,” she said. But there is always a limit to the negativity in a conversation.

“You absolutely always move in unless your beliefs about me, dehumanize me,” she said. “If you can be civil, be civil. If not, walk away.”

She also urged people to help others to the metaphorical table to speak their truths.

“The people who are the objects of the hatred and the violence, it’s not their job to build the tables for people to move in,” she said. “It’s ours.”

During Hurricane Harvey Brown, a Houston resident saw people put differences aside to help and care for each other.

“I never once saw a boat pull up to a house and say ‘I’m here to help. Who’d you vote for,’” she said. “I wish it didn’t take a disaster to see each other.”

Josephine Eliasen, an ethnologist and behavioral scientist from Copenhagen, Denmark was in town for South by Southwest and says she just happened upon Brown’s talk and she says she was very glad she stayed for it.

“[Brown] talked about very present themes – the shame and belonging – so I think in a world where we have lots of immigration, but we have a lot of digital elements, [she talked] about how we can stay connected to each other as humans.”

Eliasen said what resonated with most about Brown’s talk was the loneliness one can feel behind digital screens and how to connect with people in a real way despite that.

Collective joy and pain

People come together during moments of collective joy and celebration – a concert, a sporting event, a dance floor – and they form connections with complete strangers.

But while it was important to connect with people in moments of great collective joy, the flipside was collective pain and sadness.

Brown first witnessed collective sorrow in 1986 as a young woman in Houston when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart and killed seven crew members. She says she was driving on the Farm to Market 1960 highway in Houston when the news broke. Cars stopped, strangers hugged each other and cried and then they turned on their lights and drove down the road like they were in a funeral procession.

In moments of great sorrow, Brown says it’s important to let people know, “I see you and I’m not afraid to see your pain.”

At the end of the hour, Brown asked the audience to stand up and sing along with the folk song “If I Needed You,” by Emmylou Harris. She said the lyrics were how she hoped people would treat each other.

If I needed you would you come to me
Would you come to me for to ease my pain
If you needed me I would come to you
I would swim the seas for to ease your pain

Well the night’s forlorn and the morning’s born
And the morning shines with the lights of love
And you’ll miss sunrise if you close your eyes
And that would break my heart in two

As she gathered her things after the talk, Spies summed up the general atmosphere in the room.

“It just warms your heart and makes you feel good,” she said. “It makes the world okay and it makes you okay.”

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