Why is no one talking to me? I’ve been sitting in an ice-cream parlour at a designated chatter and natter table for over an hour, waiting to have a meaningful conversation – or any conversation at all. Why has no one approached me yet? A moment or two later I realise I am wearing my headphones. I always wear them, even if I’m not listening to anything, because they are an effective way to avoid conversation – especially with any clipboardy types. But clearly they are counterproductive here. I take them off, and wait.
I’m spending a month trying to have a meaningful conversation with a stranger every day, to see whether it’s possible to strike up new friendships or discussions in a world where we can often seem cut off from one another, with or without our headphones. There are all kinds of schemes set up to facilitate impromptu connections – the chatter and natter table I’m visiting is just one. There are chatty badges, buses, benches and cafes, each designed to help address the UK’s loneliness crisis. According to the Office for National Statistics’ Community Life survey, almost half of England’s adult population experienced loneliness between 2016 and 2017: 5% reported feeling lonely “often” or “always”; 16% were lonely sometimes; and 24% occasionally. The survey’s findings also showed loneliness is more likely to affect women: 18-to-24-year-olds reported feelings of loneliness more than any other age group, while single people and widows are the most at risk group. Research has suggested loneliness can be as bad for us as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Bethan Harris, the founder of the Loneliness Lab, a project that aims to make cities less lonely, likens loneliness to hunger: “If you and I are hungry we eat some food and feel better. When we feel lonely we need social contact but can’t get it.”
I Iive in a shared house with a lot of people and so, if you were to ask in passing, I would say I don’t feel particularly lonely. I’m content with my own company – but to the extent that I often go out of my way to avoid social contact (I’ve preferred to get lost than ask directions from strangers). Come to think of it, I suffer from social anxiety. I’m so terrified of saying the wrong thing that I have become a crashing bore: why would anyone want to talk to me? Ignore what I said at the start of this paragraph. Maybe I am a little bit lonely after all.
As the month begins, I try to speak to strangers at random, but can’t pluck up the courage. London, where I live, is crammed with the perpetually frantic. People are more stationary on public transport, but making eye contact, especially on the tube, is almost considered a crime, which explains why some Londoners had a collective meltdown when “Tube chat” badges – designed to signal that you are up for a conversation – were distributed to commuters in 2016. On social media, people replaced the “Tube chat” slogan with “Wake me up if a dog gets on” or simply “Nope!”, while one Twitter user wrote: “The worst thing about the Tube Chat badges is that they haven’t even considered the rest of us, who’ll have to listen to it happening.”
Luckily, there are other ways to bring people together. The Chatty Cafe scheme invites cafes to designate a table for strangers to meet and chat; you can find a table near you on the scheme’s website. The first table I try to visit is at Costa Coffee inside the Odeon cinema in Leicester Square, London, but there is no designated table in sight and when I ask a barista they tell me they have never heard of it.
I have slightly more luck at the Humble Bee community cafe, an oasis in east London’s concrete jungle, which offers homemade cakes and the opportunity to meet some farm animals. I don’t see a chatty table when I get there, but I do get talking to Matt, one of the cafe’s proprietors. He says people felt too shy to use the chatty table, but strangers often engage with each other in more organic ways in the cafe. Like me, Matt is a Manchester United fan and we have a brief exchange about how disappointing they are at the moment. He also tells me about the cafe’s history and how they support people with learning difficulties. I like Matt; I like the cafe. I think, if I visit again, Matt and I could, at least, become acquaintances.
I visit a few more Costas on the scheme’s website, with no joy. The Costa on Holloway Road in London tells me a church group meets a couple of times a week to use the chatty tables, but there are no tables for the churchless. I’m sure there are loads of cafes committed to making this scheme work, but the only one I found with a designated table was at Yummy Licks, the ice-cream parlour in Maida Vale, west London, where I sit all that time with my headphones on. After I take them off, I’m still left alone. I leave feeling glum, worrying there’s something wrong with me. At the Humble Bee, even one of the pigs turns its back on me and shuffles back into its sty when I say hello. Do I simply look too unattractive to sit with? I’m not exactly an oil painting, but I’m not a complete eye-sore either. Honest, ask my mum.
I decide to visit Alexandra Hoskin, the founder of the Chatty Cafe scheme, to find out where I am going wrong. I meet Hoskin in a coffee shop in Uppermill, one of a collection of sleepy villages in Saddleworth, Oldham. She had the idea for the scheme three years ago, when she was a new mother. Her job as a social worker entails constant interaction with people, but while on maternity leave she began to feel isolated. “I spent a lot of time walking around Oldham town centre, pushing the pram, going into shops and cafes,” she says. “I was just aware that you could be out of the house for a lot of the day and actually not have much interaction with other people. You’re there, you’re out, but no one notices you, no one talks to you and I thought: ‘God, how many people must feel like this?’ People pushing their shopping trolley around, going into the same shop every day and not having any conversation with anyone”
One morning at a local cafe, she had an epiphany. “There was an elderly lady on her own. She looked really down and fed up and then on another table there was a guy with disabilities with a carer and they were just sat looking around the room. Then there was me on another table with my newborn. It’s a shame, because maybe we would have all benefited from a bit of company.”
Hoskin sat on her idea for a year before she began approaching local cafes. Since then, the Chatty Cafe scheme has spread across the UK and has recently begun in Canada. I tell Hoskin I haven’t had much luck so far. “The thing about the scheme that I really want to get across,” she says, “is we’re not saying that every time someone will sit with you, because they might not do. What we’re saying is, if there’s a table there and you’re sat at it, you’re saying: I’m open, if anyone else is.”
As we get up to leave, I tell her that approaching her chatty tables fills me with anxiety, but I was able to talk to her because there was a clear purpose behind our conversation. “Maybe that’s how you should approach it. Your purpose is to chat to people,” Hoskin says. “It is nerve-racking; it’s not instant. Sometimes it will take time for people to understand and be brave. When you start chatting to someone it’s never as bad as you think it is and also it could be five minutes of meaningless conversation – what was on telly last night or what the weather’s like. But just that interaction can make you feel human and part of the world.”
Harris praises initiatives such as the Chatty Cafe scheme, but thinks the solutions they offer can be too simplistic. “The thing that people probably need is more meaningful connections. Meaningful interaction is what we’re aiming for, not just chance interaction, not one-off collisions. The opportunity to build relationships.”
The Loneliness Lab is a research project that brings together charities, local authorities and property developers to explore the best ways to “design loneliness out of cities”. Harris began the project after experiencing loneliness when she moved to London in her early 20s. “I was working from home a lot during the week. A lot of my social relationships were being conducted on WhatsApp. And when I realised that what I needed was to be around more people during the week, and to invest more in social contact in my community, my mental health improved drastically.” The first steps Harris took were to tell people she was lonely and attempt to make friends in the “real” world. Working on the lab allowed her to meet other freelancers; she now hikes with a group of them on Friday mornings. “It’s an opportunity to get out of the house and meet up with people who work from home a lot and are alone a lot during the week.”
I decide to follow Harris’s lead and invest more time in my local community. The first place I try this is at home. Embarrassingly, in the big house-share I live in, there are three men I’ve been living with for two years whose names I don’t even know. We keep very different timetables, but that’s a rubbish excuse, as they have often invited me for drinks in the garden. When I start talking to them I learn that the three men, who share a room on the ground floor, are brothers from Romania, all work in construction and are strangely enthusiastic about Brexit. We have a long, albeit broken, chat about wine, because they really like it and their folks make their own in Romania.
I have visited the same corner shop on a daily basis for two years and never said anything beyond “thanks” to the family – and dog – who run the place. Now I finally learn the name of the shop’s owner. He’s called Sam and he runs the shop with his wife and three children. We’ve not become chatty as such, but Sam greets and says goodbye to me warmly every time I come and go now.
I also decide to visit places I would never usually go. I visit a few churches on Sunday, and drink at a few new pubs, but I still don’t make any new connections. Then I remember a visit I made to a West Indian barbershop near me in the summer. Two of the barbers were having a wildly entertaining conversation about a man across the road who had opened his car door, only for a speeding bus to take it off: “One second more and BOOM! That would’ve been him!” said the barber, miming the man’s comic horror. I really wanted to join the conversation, but felt too shy. I go back for a haircut, and this time I find my voice. I ask what became of the man across the road. They seem really impressed I remember and a similarly hilarious conversation ensues between the barbers and other punters.
After reminiscing about the unfortunate bus man I speak to my barber. He is very funny, knows a lot about the crown court and speaks rapidly in an accent that shifts between Jamaican patois and traditional cockney, depending on who he’s talking to. “Are you from Scotland?” he asks. “Manchester,” I reply. “Manchester, yeah man!” he says. This leads us quickly to football chat. He is a Spurs fan. The night before our conversation, Son Heung-min dribbled the length of the pitch to score a wonder goal. We talk about this, as well as how badly Man Utd are doing and debate whether Manchester City winning the title is preferable to Liverpool winning it. Then another group chat erupts about young people’s preoccupation with digital devices. One man hypothesises that constantly leaning into their phones will stunt the next generation’s growth, a quip that’s not entirely frivolous, as smartphones have been linked to spinal injuries. It is polling day and the conversation turns to politics. “Labour is the only party that cares about people like us,” says my barber. I agree, as does the rest of the room, and we have another conversation about the election and Brexit.
This is, by far, the best experience I’ve ever had at a barbershop. In my experience, a trip to the barbers usually begins with a tedious wait, with the back of other people’s heads the only thing to focus on, followed by a prolonged staring contest with yourself. This is the first time I’ve sat in a barber’s chair that wasn’t turned towards a mirror. Everyone was facing each other, chatting, making the whole thing whizz by. As I leave, my barber tells me to ask for him when I return for a trim. I will.
At the end of the month, I haven’t managed to chat to that many strangers, despite making an effort every day – but I have spoken to many more than I usually would. The various chatty schemes didn’t lead to any meaningful interactions or friendships, but if I ever feel lonely I can remind myself that I still exist by visiting Sam at my local shop, I can talk United with Matt at the Humble Bee cafe, my flatmates finally know who I am, and I know I will never have to feel like a stranger at the barbers. Before doing this, I was comfy in the cocoon I have built around my life and, to a large extent, I still am. But withdrawing into my headphones is causing me to miss out on meeting interesting people, hearing entertaining stories and making new friends. Maybe I’ll wear them less often.