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Feature  |  Innovation

A New Conversation Starter

Tuesday, 4th October 2016 at 11:47 am
Wendy Williams
Have you ever had an amazing conversation with a stranger? The question is at the heart of a new Not for Profit initiative designed to encourage people to talk to those around them.

Tuesday, 4th October 2016
at 11:47 am
Wendy Williams



A New Conversation Starter
Tuesday, 4th October 2016 at 11:47 am

Have you ever had an amazing conversation with a stranger? The question is at the heart of a new Not for Profit initiative designed to encourage people to talk to those around them.

The Talking Park Bench, which launched on Sunday to coincide with the Victorian Seniors Festival, will see three benches outside Melbourne Town Hall equipped with laminated conversation starters to prompt strangers to sit and talk.

The vision is to have a “society where strangers speak, listen and connect”.

Founder Claire Dixon told Pro Bono Australia News the Talking Park Bench was a simple, cheap and replicable tool for reducing social isolation and creating a more respectful, engaged and inclusive community.

“It’s not that long that we’ve had access to the online world on our mobile devices and we’re probably going through a teething phase, and I know for me, and perhaps for others, we don’t really consider… the opportunity that we’re missing to engage with people and the place around us when we go on to the online world, and I think that is an opportunity lost,” Dixon said.

“Yo-Yo Ma once said ‘Good things happen when you meet strangers’.

“Good things happen at an individual level, a neighbourhood level, and across wider society.

“Cities are hives of social activity, but they can also make us feel lonely. We want to change that.”

Dixon said the idea came from having a conversation on the train with a stranger, Valerie Mills, after the battery on her phone died.

“My smart phone unexpectedly ran out of battery while waiting for the train. After an initial wave of panic, I resolved to make the most of it and go in search of a conversation. I found myself a conversation and it ended up making my day,” Dixon said.

“Later I was thinking about how cities, these dense human habitats, are melting pots of enriching social exchange, but they can also be lonely places at times. I reflected on my conversation with Val and the connection we made during that short time together and how we might fill the world with more conversations that go deeper, inspire and perhaps even make someone’s day.”

Talking Park Bench founder Claire Dixon with Val Mills

Talking Park Bench founder Claire Dixon with Val Mills. Photo: Dan A’Vard.

Dixon also drew on her interests in urban design to develop the idea of the Talking Park Bench.

“My background is in innovation and community development and I’ve got this emerging interest in urban design, and so I was doing some studies earlier this year and one concept that really resonated with me was this idea of triangulation, where you introduce to the public realm a stimulus and it attracts strangers to it and they interact with each other,” she said.

“I was reflecting with my train journey with Val and how enriching that conversation was for me and how I might create this triangulation somehow in the public realm that would attract strangers to it and encourage them to interact and connect with each other.

“And so it was sort of those two elements the studies in urban design and the personal experience with Val which lead me to thinking about how we might create those sorts of conversations and the idea specifically of the Talking Park Bench.”

The initiative was founded through a crowdfunding campaign with support from the City of Melbourne, CoDesign Studio and The School of Life.

The initial campaign surpassed their target, raising $1,572 to support the purchase of materials and the setup of the website.

“It has been quite amazing how much support I have received from people,” Dixon said.

“It is obviously hitting a nerve.

“Particularly I have been overwhelmed by people who don’t even know me contributing a few dollars to the pilot so that’s all been really great feedback I think.

“We were aiming to get a $1,000 so now we have some extra money to do good things and create more starter packs for others to create their own local Talking Park Benches.”

Dixon said one of her favourite conversation starters, from the School of Life’s conversation tool-kit, was “describe a taste or a smell that evokes a memory”, but that the project itself was now getting people talking.

“Most of my conversations with strangers over the last couples of weeks have been talking about conversations with strangers actually,” she said.

“It has been a fantastic conversation starter.

“When I have been on the train with people and actually observing conversations on the train, it’s often a way that I have started conversations by asking them ‘how did you start that conversation with a stranger and how did it make you feel’?”

Dixon said the hope was for Talking Park Benches to be created the world over.

“The idea is that with this pilot we would test it and also gather interest and inspire people to create their own local Talking Park Benches,” Dixon said.

“So I envisage that it is such a simple intervention, you just need an existing park bench and all you need to do is put a little sign on it, a reference to a website and some conversation starters and that’s it and let it go from there.

“I envisage that hopefully if people really engage with the idea there might be Talking Park Benches popping up all over the world and our website can be a way that people can link in with a network I suppose of Talking Park Benches and to the stories people are sharing about their experience on those benches.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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