– Sart conversations; talk to your neighbours, teachers and strangers, stop looking at your laptop but get out of your house and start talking! –
This was the message journalist Rutger Bregman gave to my generation at the end of his worrying article, where he compared 2016 (the Dutch elections were at hand) with 1933, when Hitler came to power. Since the elections in the US, the phenomena ‘fake news’ and ‘bubble’ have been popular terms. Many people are addressing the problem, and I want to do something about it. Sure, but how? I was happy Bregman ended his article with a ‘what can you do?’ section. It’s why I started to have conversations with people outside of my ‘bubble’. Here, I want to tell you my experiences so far.
I started out by giving myself two missions. First, I prohibited myself from using my smartphone when on public transport or in public areas. Second, I would go for a coffee every other week in a neighbourhood in Amsterdam where I had never been before, to chat with people. It was fun! On the train, I mostly had conversations with older people, those that were not watching Netflix on their iPhones. I met some Moroccan women, making pizza in the community centre where they had Dutch lessons. I learned about all the different types of beans and peas from the owner of a local Persian supermarket. But often it was hard to start a conversation, to overcome the barrier to go to a new place and talk to someone at random. It was nice, however to see the rest of Amsterdam and I gained insight in different cultures and heard different opinions about the city.
Going to a new place all by myself every two weeks felt like quite the task, and before I knew it three weeks had gone by without new conversations. In the meantime, I still tried to talk on buses and trains, but I mostly sat next to people listening to music or using Whatsapp. At this time I heard about a group of students that had established ‘De Beweging’; they were organising events for talking to strangers in public together. I only joined them once; De Beweging was a good initiative, but still not convenient enough for me. A few weeks before, my impatience to change the world had me joining the campaign team of Dutch political party GroenLinks (‘green left’). Here, the new strategy for the upcoming elections was to have conversations with people in the street and simply listen to what they want to say. Two birds with one stone! I could combine my experiment – how to change the world through politics – with my mission to talk to strangers. I went on campaigning days with GroenLinks, going from house to house, asking how people liked to live in their neighbourhood and how they would like it to be in the future. And I still do it! It feels convenient. The conversations I have are not that different from the ones I had at the beginning of this experiment. But being in a group where the information I collect has value, not having to decide for myself when to go outside, and wearing a jacket which shows I am busy working for something – these things make it easier to integrate the conversations in my schedule. I could talk for a long time about the conversations I’ve had, the opinions I’ve heard and the people I met, but I think you should just go and find out for yourself! Does it have impact? I don’t know. So, don’t just do it to change the world, do it to change yourself!
…Sure, But How? Some advice about starting conversations from my experiences so far:
Ask, don’t tell
Ask and let others talk. It’s better to give someone the space to tell you something than to have them listen to you. Try to ask really open questions like: Do you like where you live? What would you like to change about The Netherlands/Amsterdam/your neighbourhood/your school? On public transport, “Are you on your way to your parents/something fun?” or “Was your train delayed as well?” works better, of course!
Don’t try to ask ‘good’ questions or give smart answers. If you just stay honest, you create a much looser atmosphere and make the conversation feel real, instead of an assignment to complete.
Don’t set goals
Try not to think about what you want the outcome of your conversation to be, or to set a goals on how many people you want to speak with once you are on a tour. Sometimes you have 10 great conversations, sometimes you won’t have even a single one. Just experience; you will never know the effect on ‘the world’, you only know the effect on yourself.
If you go out and talk to people together, you’ll feel more comfortable, since there’s already someone around that you know. And you can share all your good and bad experiences afterwards!
Integrate conversations with your job or everyday life
This is probably my most valuable finding so far. Find how you might talk to someone you have not talked to before, without making it an extra task in your daily schedule. Make it a valuable addition to something you were doing anyway.