Puget Sounders are talking, sharing ideas at Conversation Cafés
By Cameron Woodworth
Move over, "Drew Carey" and "Ally McBeal."
In many Puget Sound circles, you're being pushed aside for good
old-fashioned conversation and real human connection. Hundreds
of people throughout the region, in fact, are giving up their
precious TV time to meet with strangers, talk about global and
personal issues, and make a difference in both the world and their
own neighborhoods by talking with one another. They're doing it
through an exciting new vehicle that's rapidly growing in popularity,
the Conversation Café.
Conversation Cafés were started in Seattle by well-known author and voluntary simplicity activist, Vicki Robin. If you check out the schedule on the www.conversationcafe.org web site, you'll see that there are a couple dozen cafés spread out through the region, from Fremont to Gig Harbor, from Wedgwood to Tukwila. The New York Times even ran a story last month about Conversation Cafés, and Robin says people in other parts of the United States-and as far away as Australia and New Zealand-are interested in offering cafés in their own communities.
The hope is that participants will come away from Conversation Cafés smarter, wiser, more informed and more connected with other folks. Café organizers also say conversations build community and help foster grassroots democracy. Conversation Cafés run counter to longtime national trends such as the rise of suburbia, shopping malls and social isolation.
I attended my first Conversation Café at Elliot Bay Books in Pioneer Square in January, during the kickoff of Conversation Week 2002. A couple hundred people attended. Half-way through, we split into small groups, forming impromptu Conversation Café circles. I sat with six strangers, from a wide range of backgrounds, viewpoints and ages. We shared thoughts, ideas, book titles and more. Like so many others who attend cafés, I felt exhilarated. Good, hearty conversation with our peers has a way of enlivening us that mass media just can't achieve. It can also be cathartic to share your thoughts and feelings about deep social issues.
"It's better than television," says Robin, co-author of Your Money or Your Life, the New York Times former bestseller. Robin attends at least one café per week, hosting the Sunday evening café at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. "It helps me gain insight into the world I'm living in, in a way I cannot get from listening to the radio, reading books, looking at e-mail-none of that provides the same intelligence of deep conversation.
"Plus, it's a very restful way to communicate, because I can just listen. I can hear from people who are different than me, and just contemplate on that. And I get to meet all these interesting people."
While Conversation Cafés do have some structure (see sidebar), they also have an aura of unpredictability-anything can happen. People say it's a little like playing conversational Hacky Sack .
"We started last summer at the Grateful Bread café in Wedgewood," says Robin. "We wanted to foster a culture of conversation, and create a networking space for people. People could talk about anything they wanted."
Conversation Cafés became especially popular after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as people looked for ways to connect with other people, share their intense feelings, and make sense of the tragedy. Sept. 11 is still a much-discussed topic, but folks also are talking about everything from the Enron scandal and access to health care to more general topics such as fear and loss.
The cafés are designed to be a safe place to share ideas and feelings. There are hosts, agreements and minimal structure. Often, a topic is specified for a given café-but it usually serves as a starting point that can branch in many different directions.
After a café, people often write feedback on response cards about their experience. Some examples:
"I need to keep my mind focused on positive thoughts to keep myself strong in order to be a force for positive change."
"Communicating openly and from the heart is powerful. Being open to hearing a different perspective is also precious."
"Finding one's way to a larger context than one has, i.e. unity in the U.S., nature, spirituality, empowerment of all people etc. is to be celebrated. It's important to doubt and question."
"There are a lot of people who are skeptical about what is going on. Healthy skepticism is good, as long as it is also open to change if justified. Hopefully it leads to constructive action."
Many people report that they feel more motivated to take action after participating in a café.
"It's increased my capacity to think critically about issues," says Robin. "I have become more political, not in the sense of being more drawn to participate in party politics, but to really ask the question, how can I as an individual make a difference in the rules of the game, in the institutions, laws and agreements of how we treat one another."
Even though Conversation Cafés have strong democratic and political elements, Robin says, "I don't think anybody in the network here in Seattle is interested in sitting on a major national organizational effort. It's inherently grassroots, so it doesn't need a top-down structure. It's not about organizing people to share certain points of view, but about creating space for people to be able to share their views."
Organizers set up the web site so any visitor can download a manual for café hosts and start a café.
Conversation Cafés are nothing new, really-they're as old as the town square, or sitting on the porch on a summer night, chatting with people in the neighborhood.
Check out: http://www.conversationcafe.org