My Free Conversations Chair

An article about the Free Conversations Movement caught my eye recently, so I had a quick look at the website. I decided not apply to join, but that simple idea of giving anyone the opportunity to have a chat appealed to me and I decided to give it a go on my own. I floated the idea on Totnesians, one of the local Facebook groups, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive, so on Friday 22nd October, shortly after 10:00, I took two chairs and a note, handwritten on cardboard, into town.

 

I set up outside the old Peacocks store due to the pavement being wider there meaning that the shop front is set back a little from the road. This meant that there was still sufficient room for people to get past easily, even with a couple of chairs on the pavement. I had no idea what to expect, so I just sat and waited. Sure enough, passers-by started sitting down for a chat. I met some lovely people and had very interesting conversations with each of them. Some, although not all, were happy, the conversations covered a wide range of topics, several others walking past commented on what a good idea it was, and several others said that they would have stopped had they had the time. (My light-hearted response each time was that they should sit down with me to talk about their time management.) After about two and a half hours I had to go home because I was cold, but I was also sold on the whole idea.

has it been worth it?

At this point I feel I should point out that there are several reasons why I consider myself to be in a fortunate position relative to this venture. For example, I am fully retired, and so have the time to be able to commit. I am also naturally confident and so am happy to meet and talk to those whom I do not know. We already had a couple of appropriate chairs, lightweight and foldable, that we use in the garden; a small but important detail. My point is that others might not be in a position to engage as I have in this process for a whole range of reasons. However, if you think that this might appeal to you, I would recommend giving it a go, although there are some further elements that I would highlight.
I try not to be judgemental in any way. I couldn’t set up something like this inviting anyone to have a chat, and then say, “But not you!” I currently have not thought of ways to end conversations, partly because I want to respond rather than to lead, and also because I have not yet needed any such exit strategies. This may be something that I need to develop; we shall see.

One helpful woman suggested that I offer a cushion to make the seat more welcoming, and we already had a couple of cushions lying around (another small but important detail) so I bought a length of jazzy material and ran up a couple of covers. She was right; it made a difference during my second session on the following Friday both to the visual aspect and to our bottoms. I also thought that my sign, handwritten on a piece of cardboard, could be confused with someone asking for something rather than offering without reservation, so I made a chalkboard from some wood that I happened to have at home, painted with chalkboard paint that I also happened to have. I guess the overall message here is that an apparently simple venture still needs a little planning, both conceptually and practically.

 

All of this leads to a question: has it been worth it? Unquestionably. Today is the fourth Friday in succession that I have occupied my ‘pitch’, I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting and talking to people, the responses have been extremely positive, and I am determined to keep going if the weather allows. Not only have I enjoyed it, I genuinely feel that the conversations have made a positive difference to those whom I have met, albeit more so for some than for others. It would be very rewarding if what I am doing were a catalyst for this to become a more widespread feature of Totnes. I have already heard talk of the Town Council establishing seats in the Civic Square which would enable people more easily to talk to each other due to their positioning, and a lovely woman from The Mansion House suggested I set up in there if it started raining. I am sure that there are many opportunities for others to pick up this baton and run with it. If you do, I hope that your experiences are as positive and life-affirming as mine.

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