By Laine Bergeson and Courtney Helgoe, Experience Life
On a sunny day last fall, Taylor Baldry set up a card table and three folding chairs on a well-traveled street corner in Minneapolis. He stationed a sandwich board nearby that announced “Free Conversations.” Almost immediately, a couple joined him, and they spent the next 20 minutes discussing ghost stories, a topic they selected from Baldry’s menu of conversation options, which on this day ranged from the weather and dinosaurs to “things you can do with an egg.”
When the couple left, others sat down, and Baldry spent the afternoon chatting amiably with a steady stream of strangers, doing his part to restore the practice of in-person conversation.
Since that October afternoon, Baldry, a performance artist, has taken his Conversationalist project to parks, theaters and other venues in the city, and has learned something about his fellow citizens: People are starved for authentic interactions. “Most people think it’s a trick at first — that I’m selling something,” says the 28-year-old. “When they realize there are no strings attached, they’ll really start talking.”
From the salons of 19th-century Paris to the contemporary cocktail party, conversation has long been celebrated as a social art. But today it’s increasingly being replaced by self-promotional electronic posts and superficial digital chatter. While social media and platforms like Facebook play a vital role in modern culture, there are aspects inherent in a face-to-face engagement that can’t be replaced.
An in-person exchange gives us the opportunity to see and be seen by our cohorts — a seemingly small detail with significant consequences. Body language and facial expressions allow for a more nuanced understanding of a person’s tone and overall message, which is key to building trust. Visual cues also engage the brain’s mirror neurons, which fire when we express an emotion or when we see someone else do the same. This process, commonly referred to as empathy, helps us forge closer, more meaningful relationships, and learn more about others and ourselves.
If you feel a little reticent about engaging in a more sophisticated tête-à-tête with your fellows — up close and personal — read on. Even the most introverted among us can learn how to diversify, deepen and comfortably practice the simple art of conversation.
First up: simple beginnings