For many recovering alcoholics and addicts, venturing into a twelve-step meeting for the first time can be an intimidating prospect. Where do I park? Where is the meeting entrance? Will there be coffee? (Check out our list of 5 Things to Know Before Your First Meeting for tips on navigating those first few meetings.) But before you get stressed about where the bathroom is remember that each group you visit is going to do things a little bit differently. There are, however, some basic suggestions for etiquette that can help ease the discomfort of being new and acclimate you to the group more quickly. Learning to be a kind and respectful participant of a meeting, even one you may never return to, helps the group uphold its primary purpose: to carry its message to the still suffering member.
1. Avoid cross-talk.
It is a generally accepted practice to avoid cross-talk, which is addressing a share at another person rather than the group. When shares are directed to the group everyone can benefit from the message being offered and no one individual in the group is singled out. Additionally, members will often try to limit their shares to their own experience, using “I” rather than “you.”
2. Avoid double-dipping.
While each group has its own meeting practices, many meetings will observe a spoken or unspoken suggestion to avoid double-dipping, which is sharing more than once in a meeting. By only sharing once, more people in the group have an opportunity to participate.
3. Limit the ups & downs.
We’re not talking about emotional ups and downs, but actual physical ups and downs during the meeting. Get your coffee, take your final smoke break, and make that last run to the bathroom before the meeting starts. Of course, maybe nature calls or that cigarette can’t wait. When that happens, try to be as the least disruptive as possible when you leave, preferably waiting for the person sharing to finish before getting up.
4. Limit conversation during the meeting.
Sharing in a meeting can be an intimidating or anxiety-inducing experience for a lot of people. Additional chatter or side conversations can be distracting and even hurtful to the person sharing, and to those trying to listen.
5. Be respectful of the meeting topic.
It’s generally best practice to stick to the meeting topic when sharing in a meeting. Many groups, however, will offer an opportunity to share at the beginning or end of the meeting if something is threatening your sobriety. These might be called “burning desires,” that thing you need to get off your chest. It also helps to arrive early to a meeting or to stay after so you can connect with other group members about ideas or experiences going on in your life at the time.
6. Be mindful of how long you share.
Many meetings, though certainly not all, will offer a suggested time limit for how long each person may share. Some meetings may even have a timekeeper. Staying within the recommended time limit allows more people a chance to participate and to have their voices heard.
7. Remember what fellowship you are visiting.
Going to a meeting outside of your typical fellowship is a lot like visiting someone else’s home. You want to respect their practices where you can. So, if you’re in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous it’s customary to identify as an alcoholic rather than an addict, or to say drinking instead of using. The reverse would go for a member of Alcoholics Anonymous visiting Narcotics Anonymous. It’s a nice gesture that shows respect for the meeting and the fellowship.
8. Limit cell phone use.
It can be hard to step away from the scroll, but try to wrap up that last dip into Instagram or Snapchat before the meeting begins, and finish up phone calls and text messages. But everyone is aware that emergencies or time-sensitive issues occur and if you need to step out to take a call or respond to a message, then try do so with as little disruption as possible.
9. Find out where you can smoke or vape.
One of the easiest ways to figure out where a twelve-step meeting takes place is by spotting the smokers and vapers outside. Not only is it a good clue about where the meeting is but also where smoking and vaping is allowed. Meetings that have specific protocols around smoking and vaping will typically make that known in the opening or closing. And when all else fails, just follow the smoke and you’ll likely be in the right place.
10. Respect anonymity.
As one of the guiding principles of twelve-step programs, anonymity protects not only the individual but also twelve-step programs as a whole. Each person who attends a twelve-step meeting has a right to have their anonymity observed.
Most twelve-step meetings are warm and inviting spaces. If something doesn’t make sense or you have a question, just ask. Everyone—everyone—was new once and most people at meetings are more than willing to help answer questions or provide insight into how the group runs. Your presence at the meeting is important and the group wants you there.