par Jason Huther - Un mouvement pousse les jeunes à se réapproprier l’espace urbain. Des concepts nés aux Etats-Unis ou en Europe du Nord favorisent les rencontres dans les parcs ou les rues.
Des participants au mouvement FreeConvo confortablement installés à Washington Square Park, New York. (photo: FreeConvo)
Samedi, de jeunes designers néerlandais ont été récompensés pour leur démarche contre l’insalubrité avec «Fumo», un poteau animé qui a séduit le concours de design Red Dot Award, à Essen (All). Leur création félicite et remercie (musique, lumières, citations) les gens qui y jettent leurs mégots.
Comme avec cette proposition, partout des jeunes cherchent de nouvelles idées pour transformer leurs cités. A l’image de FreeConvo, mouvement né à New York l’été dernier. L’objectif? Partager ses opinions avec des inconnus, assis sur quelques canapés disposés dans un parc ou dans la rue. «En une après-midi, plus de 150 personnes s’arrêtent, dit Jennie Liang, une organisatrice de 27 ans, enthousiaste. Tous les sujets sont abordés: politiques, relationnels ou sportifs.» Après avoir séduit San Francisco, Los Angeles et Londres, l’expérience a été tentée le 20 avril dernier à Paris, lors du Festival des conversations.
Dans la même veine, en mars à Bordeaux (F), trois femmes architectes (24 à 25 ans) ont lancé «Café en bullant», un bar sur roulettes, confectionné par leurs soins. Dans la rue, elles offrent des boissons. «Certains nous regardent avec curiosité sans s’arrêter, les plus hardis s’assoient avec nous et partagent un moment convivial», expliquent-elles. Ce concept norvégien, lancé par un designer de 27 ans en août dernier, s’est vite répandu (Suède). La démarche a également une vocation caritative: «Les gens donnent ce qu’ils veulent pour une tasse, indique son inventeur, Erlend Hanssen Sjavik. Ils désignent ensuite un organe de bienfaisance qu’ils souhaitent soutenir.»
Some years ago, in conversation with two close friends, I proposed what I thought was a unique idea – set up and offer advice on the streets of New York City. They loved the idea and heartily agreed to give it a whirl. I felt confident in the venture primarily because of the experience and background of my two friends, a married couple. One of the couple, Leslie Gold is not only an old friend from my college days, but also an avid reader of this blog and subject of one of my stories (White By Design).
Coming from a quite unsophisticated background in New England, I always felt privileged to know her and her family, who were well educated, steeped in the world of psychotherapy and Manhattanites. Leslie’s grandfather, Fritz Perls, along with his wife Laura (with a doctorate in Psychology), founded the school of Gestalt Therapy.
Laura had a classic 6 room apartment on the Upper West Side near Central Park. I stayed there a number of summers while Laura toured Europe and gave lectures. My first exposure to classical music was that which Laura played for us on her baby grand piano. She was a concert level pianist. Leslie had been born in Manhattan, daughter of an art director. She would later become a graphic designer and would have a profound influence on the imaging of my company, now in its 39th year. In fact, she designed my company logo, the subject of another New York Story*. Knowing the Perls family was a formative experience for me, for which I will be forever grateful. That is how, at 19 years old, the son of a Maine woodcutter was delightfully catapulted into the upper crust of New York City and was privileged to have a bit of it rub off.
In planning our advice giving venture, we agreed that it was important to charge something believing that people would take the advice more seriously. We settled on $1 per question on any subject, but favoring interpersonal relationships, the strongest suit of my companions. And so, sometime in the late 1990s, at Bleecker Street and 6th Avenue in the Village, we set up shop. I had made signs with our biographies which I displayed on a music stand. Our first client asked where he could find a bathroom – not exactly the type of “advice” we were looking to give, but we made a nearby recommendation and waived our $1 fee. The first evening was a learning experience and we promised to continue the venture, which we never did.
I later found out however that the idea of dispensing advice on the streets of New York City had already been done and done quite well by three women who authored a book about their experiences and toured. The book, Free Advice – The Advice Ladies on Love, Dating, Sex and Relationships, by Amy Alkon, Caroline Johnson and Marlowe Minnick, was published in 1996. Amy now does an advice column, syndicated in over 100 newspapers.
On November 16, 2013, advice and conversation hit critical mass in Washington Square Park. Here we had the folks from freeconvo on their inflated couches just a stones throw from a group of offering free advice and another seated with signs asking for $.25.
Freeconvo was featured in Forbes Magazine in an article, The Lost Art Of Conversation And Connection. The writer, Donna Sapolin, sees the phenomena of things like freeconvo, free hugs, etc. as a forced effort:
The fact that the founders of FreeConvo find it necessary to force engagement in this bustling metropolis is a true sign of the times — there’s no shortage of opportunities to encounter and talk with others here but, evidently, authentic connection is in short supply.It seems the younger generations are deeply hungry for meaningful face-to-face interactions but feel they have to devise a new approach in order to get beyond shallow chit-chat. This isn’t exactly surprising considering that the bulk of Gen X and Y communication takes place via texts, social media posts and email, and camaraderie takes the form of things watched or played together on screens. We’ve deemed these generations to be the most connected, but they may, in fact, be the most disconnected.Of course, they aren’t the only ones living virtual lives. These days, many of us are swapping out true friendship for superficial fans and followers and substituting short typed comments for full-blown conversations.
Sapino goes on to discuss the Free Hugs Campaign of Juan Mann. She sees his activity as more desperate than anything else and concludes about these various contrived efforts:
Personally, I only welcome hugs that express true caring and affection. I prefer spontaneous, unstaged interactions — genuine, unprovoked acts of kindness …
To some extent, I agree with Donna, however, I see any campaign or project to engage people face to face, be it conversation or advice, to be a good thing. A bit forced perhaps, but who knows where the encounters or efforts will lead. Try it in any form, would be, for whatever it’s worth, My Advice
*Note: In an ironic twist of fate, my logo was modeled after Bloomingdale’s. I never dreamed that 39 years later I would find myself awarded top 10 classic businesses of New York City and that I would share that honor with Bloomingdale’s itself!
The Lost Art Of Conversation And Connection
By Donna Sapolin, Next Avenue Founding Editor
I recently took a walk in Central Palk and ended up at the Bethesda Terrace, where I spotted a group of young adults seated on inflated plastic sofas next to a large cardboard sign that said “Free Conversation.” A social engagement project, FreeConvo, was launched this past June by Michael Scotto, who works in finance, and Tony Cai who’s an IT consultant. They got the idea after sitting down on a couch that had been placed on a sidewalk for trash pickup. They’re now staging conversation sessions all over New York City.
Curious about the outdoor living-room setup and the no-fee pitch for a natural human behavior, I plopped down on one of the sofas and introduced myself to four young adults. One fellow asked me a “starter” question printed on another piece of cardboard:What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?
Flipping the Convo Question
Given the three-decade age gap between me and most of the others seated there, I thought that sharing the sorts of difficult things I’ve experienced over time wouldn’t be the best way to keep the conversation flowing. So I turned the question back to them and got an earful about running serial marathons, journeying to Russia to educate high school students there about the American way of life, attending college while living at home with parents, the adventures of shipping out to sea as part of a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy curriculum and struggles with a difficult boss.
(MORE: 30 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Die)
According to the FreeConvo Facebook page, the goal is to take down the barriers we’ve been “trained” to put up. “Have you ever noticed no matter how much you pour into yourself and your own accomplishments that something is still missing?” says the About section. “Likely, you’ve been told to get the best degree, best career, be better than everyone else. Then you get there and you feel empty.” The initiative’s founders suggest the emptiness stems from the fact that we are “rarely thinking of people who could help us, who could connect with us, who could laugh with us.”
While I found this approach to promoting in-person interaction among strangers interesting, the sense of connection we experienced on that couch was pretty superficial — possibly because we weren’t a captive audience. I resumed my walk after about 15 minutes of “convo,” and the other people I had been chatting with left at the same time.
The fact that the founders of FreeConvo find it necessary to force engagement in this bustling metropolis is a true sign of the times — there’s no shortage of opportunities to encounter and talk with others here but, evidently, authentic connection is in short supply.
(MORE: Is Your Hometown a Place to Grow Old? Mine Is)
My FreeConvo experience validated something I’ve been suspecting ever since my Millennial son told me after Hurricane Sandy struck that he hadn’t minded being marooned on the 36thfloor of his apartment building without power for a week because it gave him the chance to have deep conversations with his roommates. “We really, really talked because we didn’t have any screens to distract us,” he said.
It seems the younger generations are deeply hungry for meaningful face-to-face interactions but feel they have to devise a new approach in order to get beyond shallow chit-chat. This isn’t exactly surprising considering that the bulk of Gen X and Y communication takes place via texts, social media posts and email, and camaraderie takes the form of things watched or played together on screens. We’ve deemed these generations to be the most connected, but they may, in fact, be the most disconnected.
Of course, they aren’t the only ones living virtual lives. These days, many of us are swapping out true friendship for superficial fans and followers and substituting short typed comments for full-blown conversations.
New York photographer Richard Renaldi’s “Touching Strangers” project is another one that shines a light on a yearning for connection and the notion of a forced antidote. He’s posed and shot over 150 encounters involving physical contact between two or more total strangers and, in the process, caused them to bond. Their experiences negate digital-era desensitization, if only for the length of time it takes to snap some photos.
The subjects of Renaldi’s portraits admit to feeling quite awkward when he first invites them to take part but many eventually arrive at a different emotional juncture. “We are probably missing so much about the people all around us,” said one woman after participating. A young and reticent poetry teacher who was paired with a 95-year-old retired fashion designer claimed that by the time all the shots had been taken, “I felt like I cared for her.”
In the riveting final photograph shown in the below video, Michael, a fellow the photographer spotted on a basketball court, grasps the hands of Jesse, an elderly woman. “There was a really great connection between them,” Rinaldi says. “It made for a really beautiful moment.”
Touching Strangers: Photographs by Richard Renaldi from Aperture Foundation on Vimeo.
Yes, but that’s probably all it amounts to — a moment of connection that points to an entire universe of possibility.
Of Hope and Hugs
The photo and conversation projects are reminiscent of one that originated a few years ago that was also devoted to showing affection for people you don’t know — the Free Hugs Campaign. It was launched by Australian Juan Mann when he arrived back home after being away for a long time and found that no one had come to the airport to greet him.
The experience led him to create and hold up a “Free Hugs” placard, walk up to complete strangers on the street and offer hearty embraces as well as a chance to wave his sign for awhile so that they could continue to reap the rewards of fleeting intimacy.
Nice? I’m not so sure. Desperate may be a more apt description. Personally, I only welcome hugs that express true caring and affection. I prefer spontaneous, unstaged interactions — genuine, unprovoked acts of kindness like the ones in this video, which depicts “road love.” The drivers’ actions are spurred by an open heart rather than any contrived prompt.
An idea I like even more is forming and deepening connections with people you already know. I admit that restoring bonds with those who were once close and grew distant, or creating a bond with someone you had hoped to get to know better but never did, may be much harder than talking to someone you’ve never met before and don’t ever have to see again. But I think it’s well worth trying. Don’t you?
I recommend shutting off your devices, stepping away from the screen and talking, really talking. And, yes, hugging too.
Donna Sapolin is the Founding Editor of Next Avenue. Follow Donna on Twitter @stylestorymedia.