It all starts with my Dad.
Anyone who’s met him can confirm: he likes a chat.
He’s from the Midlands, where it isn’t odd to talk to the shop assistant, or the bus driver, a fellow dog walker or just a fellow human.
In London, this behaviour is incongruous.
London isn’t chatty.
Like many big cities, it’s driven by business and being busy. I’ve written before about my take on London’s culture of distance. It’s not rudeness, but the fact of so many living so close together creates imaginary bubbles around us. There is rarely time to spare as people dash from work to gyms to bars to flats.
Bubbles must be protected. No time to chat.
So when Dad visits me in London, cultures clash. I used to handle this poorly. We were once sat together on the train as it rattled through the capital. Chatting openly for the whole journey, he asked me:
What’s that building?
I was painfully aware that everyone else in the carriage was silent and therefore listening, and my London building knowledge wasn’t coming out of this well. It’s likely no one cared about us talking, but in my mind it was drawing attention. We were making it difficult for our fellow passengers to remain in their bubbles. How could I get this conversation to end?
Dad chatted to my neighbours, waiting staff, builders, security guards. Usually about the outrageous price of things in London and how much it has changed since the 70’s. They would nod, even though few had been around or even alive long enough to make that comparison. I’d stand there with an apologetic smile, not quite knowing what to do. I wanted to join in but then I never talked much usually. I was in my bubble.
But in the last couple of years, I’ve realised talk in general, and even talking to strangers, is good. It’s even essential.
There were two major turning points. The first was taking a sabbatical where I travelled in the US alone. I went from timidly hiding behind my headphones to chatting to my Airbnb host over dinner. I found that people hold information you can’t find on Google.
But more importantly, human interaction is a necessary factor in staying mentally healthy.
That’s one of the reasons why today, 7th February has been designated Time to talk day.
Mental health problems affect one in four of us, yet people are still afraid to talk about it. Time to Talk Day encourages everyone to talk about mental health.
The second turning point for me was a job change.
When I left the office job I’d held for a decade, there was a sharp drop in daily conversation. I lived alone and when setting up as a freelancer I’d sit with my laptop all day, replying to emails, checking LinkedIn and other social media for opportunities. It was all communication, but none of it felt real. No one made eye contact, smiled or nodded. There was no connection.
I looked at options. I tried working in coffee shops and co-working spaces, but in truth I found it unproductive. Lots of ambient noise but no one actually speaking to me. It didn’t help.
I realised I needed to talk and listen. So one thing I did was working in an Oxfam shop. People in the shop often exchanged a few words over donating clothes or buying items. I noticed an upturn in my mood after being there.
It was the feeling of being connected to the world, not just silently inhabiting it.
I visited friends or agreed times for lengthy phone calls. We’d easily chalk up a couple of hours, updating each other and chatting freely. It was enriching and lifted my mood.
I made it a priority to step up the talking to strangers in London. I’d always said hello to people in local shops, but I started to take it further. A comment on the weather, how long they’d been open, just a small conversation as and when I could. Nothing alarming!
I joined LunchClub, an AI powered service that matches you with someone for a lunch or coffee meeting. The matching is based on professional interests, so I’ve met people doing user research, innovation and design so far. It’s arranged by email so all you have to do is turn up and chat.
When Dad visited recently, I enjoyed introducing him at my leisure centre and both of us chatted away with the staff. I saw now that people weren’t inconvenienced, in fact many were pleased to have a conversation. The bubble, once broken, wasn’t missed.
So don’t forget the power of talking. It really helps.