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social connection

How to (imperfectly) talk to a stranger

How to (imperfectly) talk to a stranger

Starting a new project is a bit like starting a conversation with a stranger; it’s better to do a bit of something than a lot of nothing. There is rarely a perfect moment to start anything, so I’m trying to embrace imperfection over inaction. After all, it is our imperfections and actions that make us most interesting. The Japanese have a name for the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete; wabi sabi.

Talking Park Bench is a new project to test an idea. It’s an idea about how we might take the humble park bench and with a few simple tweaks, transform it into a place where strangers readily speak, listen and connect. Then we’ll reflect, learn, share and hopefully inspire others to create their own talking park benches, tailored to their style and neighbourhood. We’d also like to start a conversation about conversations, exploring themes such as human-scale cities, the art of good conversation, how technology is influencing social connection and the concerning rise of loneliness across many societies. We'll also share stories of conversations with strangers.

We may not have the formula right, but we’re trying it out. In the spirit of giving something a go, I encourage you to try something for yourself. Embrace imperfection, follow your curiosity and start a conversation with a stranger.

It could begin as simply as establishing eye contact, saying hello or complimenting the other person. A few days ago I was on the train and observed two strangers having a conversation. I wasn’t there for its beginning. When one man got off the train, I approached the other. After telling him about my curiosity about conversations between strangers (a fascinating conversation starter in itself!), I asked how the conversation had begun. He told me that he’d simply removed his bag from the seat to make room for the other man and apologised for the inconvenience. The other man noticed his French accent and, voilà, a conversation started!

At the moment, I’m experimenting with triangulation. Use something external to both yourself and the other person as a link, hence the three points in the triangle. Our Talking Park Bench pilot is itself an exercise in triangulation. Simply find something in the environment that is of interest to you. You might start with something neutral and innocuous like the shape of a particular cloud or the style of music that’s playing in the background. If you get a luke warm response, don’t take it personally. Not everyone is always up for a chat. If you’re feeling disheartened, keep in mind this quote from American film director Whit Stillman who said, ‘The best conversation you’ll ever have will be with a stranger.’ Now that’s a reason to channel your inner wabi sabi and try again.


If you’d like to share your experience of starting a conversation with a stranger, head to our Facebook page.

This blog post was sponsored by Eliza Gregory, a generous Kickstarter backer and inspiring creative based in San Francisco.