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I talk to strangers
Like a weirdo.
Back in 2014 when I was doing the self-help blog that would become Help Me! I was spending a lot of time in coffee shops in between doing daring deeds. Not much has changed. I’m still in coffee shops - just minus the daring deeds.
One that I was in a lot had a guy working there who had dreads and wore a badge on his t-shirt saying ‘I talk to strangers’.
It was a movement he was trying to start. The movement of, well, talking to strangers. Which may seem fairly innocuous in many parts of the world but which seems quite outrageous to English people. Especially English people living in London.
I was happy to hear about it. I was doing Rejection Therapy at the time, chatting to people on the Northern Line and on Hampstead Heath. My friendliness made the weirdo of North London.
So we swapped notes from the front line of talking to strangers and he gave me a badge. I still have it somewhere and I am now someone, several years later who will talk to strangers constantly. It is one of the things I enjoy most in the world: Talking to someone I don’t know and finding out what they are about.
A couple of weeks ago, a woman I met at a writing workshop messaged to say she was working at a new start up called Leap, which is going to facilitate people talking to strangers online. But actually talking. Not text message talking.
The app has discussions going on all day on different topics and you can drop in. There’s a host introducing the theme and then you get put into small break out rooms of 4 people to talk amongst yourselves about the theme. Apparently it’s going very well. Even quite shy people find that when it’s not just ‘how are you? Where do you live?’ small talk, when it’s a conversation on a specific topic - such as what is kindness, where do you most what to travel etc - they can open up.
I like the sound of it.
Many of you will know that when we did the Writing for Fun and Sanity workshops we would sometimes go into small break out rooms to talk about the topic we were writing about. For some people, this was their worst nightmare. They came to write in private, not be sitting in a zoom room with people they didn’t know!
But I think for a good majority, it was a tonic. The way people’s faces looked before and after the zoom room chats could have made a before and after spread in a magazine. Afterwards everyone’s faces were lifted, brighter, their eyes shining.
It would often happen that someone in Delhi had had exactly the same kind of week as someone in Derby. Or that a sixty something would know exactly what to say to a twenty something who was feeling lost. People had so much in common and could offer each other great comfort. Or there were differences and that was interesting too.
A few people told me that those Saturday connections were the best thing to happen to them in lockdown. People have met in real life and have stayed in touch.
I once spoke to a psychologist for an article I wrote on how to make friends as an adult - and she explained that as humans our whole system is soothed by the presence of another but we are only soothed if we see someone, hear them or touch them.
Clinical psychologist and author Linda Blair explained: “I have nothing against technology, but it is a source of information, not connection,” she says. “The emotional part of the brain needs other humans to feel calm but it’s their touch, scent and voice that has this effect, not looking at a picture of them.”
I think the idea of this app is that we are actually connecting with each other. We are seeing faces and talking to each other about topics that might interest us.
Of course you could say why do we need to go on an app to talk to strangers - shouldn’t we be talking to our friends, or people in our local coffee shop or at the bus stop?
Well, yes. Definitely it would be lovely to do that. But often we don’t. Not all of us have friends - something that’s a source of shame but is actually very common - or at least friends that are available. Not everyone feels at ease striking up a conversation with someone in a coffee shop.
I think this app might be a kind of safe way to dip your toes in to the ‘I talk to strangers’ movement. It could be the first step before we all run away to an I TALK TO STRANGERS COMMUNE. Although I guess if we were in the commune we wouldn’t be strangers anymore…
Anyway, I really like the idea of it - and they are not paying me to say so. And so I’ll be giving it a go this Wednesday 7.30 pm UK time.
I’ll be chatting with the gloriously named Dominique Afacan on the topic of DO SELF -HELP BOOKS WORK? and then you’ll all go into break out rooms to talk about your own experiences.
The sessions are just half an hour long, with time for introductions and wraps ups so you are not chatting for a long time. I think the most you are ever in the small break out room is 10-15 minutes.
If you want to come, download the app onto your phone and sign up to the chat.
And if the idea is about as appealing as cutting off your ear, you are released without any obligation or guilt. I’ll still talk to you next time I see you…