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.
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.
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 36th floor 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.”
(MORE: The Perils of Aging Alone)
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.”
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.