Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Talking to Strangers

A few days ago, I posted Tim's account of a conversation about climate change. That got me thinking about how uncomfortable we tend to be about talking to strangers.

I remember the artist and activist John Jordan telling a workshop that he realised he was far more comfortable facing a line of riot police at a G8 summit than knocking on his neighbours' doors to talk to them about setting up a shared compost scheme.

Richard Sennett's book, 'The Fall of Public Man', includes a fascinating account of the emergence of the convention of public silence - the point at which, in cities like London and Paris, strangers first stopped talking to each other in the street and in other public spaces. He associates it, among other things, with the shift from the haggling of the street market to the department store, where we as customers become an audience before the spectacular displays. (He also points out that it is in the same period of the nineteenth century that the convention of the silent audience arose in the theatre and the concert hall.)

My hunch is that learning to talk to each other again is one of the skills we'll need if we're going to find a liveable way through the consequences of climate change. It's one of the things we experimented with a lot in Pick Me Up - for example, when Charlie and friends dressed up as air stewards and served tea on the London Underground. That was definitely a liberating experience for the four of them - and a classic story! - but might the spectacle of experiments like that actually reinforce the strangeness of talking to strangers? The hard thing is to do it without a costume, without props or artistic license.

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