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I came across an article about English towns that are installing “chat benches” with signs saying, “The ‘Happy to Chat’ Bench: Sit Here If You Don’t Mind Someone Stopping To Say Hello.”
If this sounds vaguely familiar, you may recall that four years ago, I posted about a bus company in Brazil that reserved seats on buses and provided conversation prompts for people who wanted to meet someone new.
I actually used that as an inspiration for a program at my last venue to match up individuals wanting to see show who didn’t have anyone with whom to attend. ArtsMidwest picked up on it and apparently are still talking about as part of their Creating Connections program because people keep telling me they heard about the idea at one of their seminars.
Birch Coffee in NYC had a policy of not turning on the Wifi until 5 pm and providing conversation prompts at their tables. (A look at their website and social media presence couldn’t confirm if they still hold to this). Their goal was to create a greater sense of community than was possible with people constantly looking at their screens.
The intent of the bench project in England is combat loneliness among senior citizens, though they encourage everyone to have a seat.
Burnham-On-Sea police community support officer Tracey Grobbeler told Burnham-On-Sea.com, “Simply stopping to say ‘hello’ to someone at the Chat Bench could make a huge difference to the vulnerable people in our communities and help to make life a little better for them.”
The initiative was launched to coincide with United Nations World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. According to a recent poll, more than a third of seniors reported feeling a lack of companionship at least some of the time, while 27 percent said they feel isolated some of the time or more often. While the project was conceived with the elderly population in mind, the Burnham-On-Sea police department encourages residents of all ages to use the chat benches.
Something I wonder about all these projects is whether the initial intention is fully realized. Clearly you can’t just set up a bench somewhere and expect conversations to happen organically. A framework was set up for each of these efforts. At the same time, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. People may not behave in a way that conforms to your ideals.
Just as with my search of Birch Coffee’s web and social media presence sites (as well as some media reports) didn’t have any mention of the no-Wifi policy, I haven’t really been able to discover whether the Brazilian bus company had success getting people to strike up conversations or if the seats were monopolized by the same people who refuse to cede their seats to the elderly on public transport worldwide.
I would be interested to know if anyone has come across projects with similar intentions and had a sense of their success. My hope is that if things diverged from the original intent, the results were even better than the creators envisioned. It would be great to know how any sort of successful outcome emerged or if important insight was derived from disappointing results.
In an attempt to become regarded as more of a community asset, I am sure a lot of arts organizations would be pleased to learn about moderate successes. Everything doesn’t have to be about racking up huge numbers for grant reports.
If there was a case where an arts organization said, “well we invested a little bit of time and money for six months up front and now there is a consistent presence of 10-15 people hanging out, chatting all day in our lobby or sidewalk where no one had been before,” there is a low level, but consistent good-will benefit accruing for the organization.