Would you ever have dinner with a stranger? It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but one guy’s on a mission to get strangers opening up and sharing stories.
This year, Canberra-based former President of the Australian National University Students’ Association and Curator of the Canberra Global Shapers Hub, Ben Gill, organised two dinner events for strangers to revive the lost art of conversation. Small talk like weather aside, each pair received a menu of questions to help shape their two hour conversation.
Interviewee: Ben Gill | Photos: Hannah Wandel
North: What inspired this idea?
Ben: I heard about the idea after reading Empathy by Roman Krznaric. It was a book about empathy, what we know about it, and how we foster it. One of the examples in the book was about community empathy where it spoke about a dude in London called Theodore Zeldin who, for his seventieth birthday, rather than having a party, decided to invite strangers from London to come together to have a conversation with someone they didn’t know for a long period of time, to foster that deeper, meaningful connection, but not necessarily for the pursuit of friendship. That was kind of in reflection of the way that technology’s going, where we don’t actually stop and smell the roses as much.
From there, it expanded into what was called muse societies. Theodore was an Oxford professor so he started an Oxford muse society, and there seems to be this trend around the world now with universities starting their own muse societies. It’s since moved beyond that and into the public realm. Theodore’s even done a few things in the corporate world about building employee engagement, like getting finance to speak to sales. There’s even examples of similar events in European countries looking at refugees coming in and fostering empathy and understanding through talking to people.
North: With the digital revolution do you think the art of conversation has been lost?
Ben: Definitely. Most people our age will typically have deep and meaningfuls over wine. People like having those conversations but you don’t get the same gestures, the body language, the eye contact, which physiologically has an affect on you to make you feel more happy, comfortable and trusting. People bring out their phones completely mindlessly and it has changed how conversation is. People argue – rightly or wrongly -whether conversation has been ruined by technology, but it’s definitely changed it. Even emojis now are a whole other language and so, this is bringing it back to the foundations of two people engaging in conversation.
North: How did you kickstart the first muse society event in Canberra?
Ben: I ran one at the Australian National University (ANU) at the start of the year and that was after I emailed Theodore at this really weird email address. He eventually replied and we skyped a few times and I made a menu and well, here we are.
North: Did he give you any tips on running a muse society?
Ben: He told me, don’t be so accommodating to people’s needs. Be firm with them. The underlying principle is not speed dating. Get them to think if they can commit to the two hours. We had different ideas about some things, for example, if a female was not comfortable with speaking to a male, I would accommodate that where possible, whereas he wouldn’t but I think that’s more generational. Outside of that, it was pretty chilled. I ran through the history of the event and who organised it. The ground rules: Be kind to each other. It’s not rocket science. We have conversations every day, you’re just choosing to be mindful.
North: Were your questions based on questions that Theodore had used?
Ben: Yes, they were ones he used to draft the menu and I adapted a few for the last event we ran.
North: What was the turnout for the first event?
Ben: It was for Orientation Week and we had about 80 students turn up throughout the two hour period. Many people hadn’t read the event description and I think quite a few people were confronted by the fact that you only chat to one person that you didn’t know for two hours.
North: How would you describe the atmosphere in the room while it was all happening?
Ben: It was kind of buzzing; as soon as it started, people really got into it. You walk around and people were having really animated discussions. People were leaning in, body language was overall positive. People felt more comfortable. It was kind of a chicken and egg scenario; as soon as someone shared something more vulnerable, the other person would do the same. I spoke to someone at the end of it and they said they were kind of full of regret about whether they should have said some of those things, but they just said it kind of came out, not in a bad way, just that they wouldn’t say that to a lot of people. It was interesting to see that people were quite open.
The ground rules: Be kind to each other. It’s not rocket science. We have conversations every day, you’re just choosing to be mindful.
North: Did you receive feedback from people about what questions were really hard to discuss?
Ben: People found it very subjective. The one that kind of stumped most people was, what do your five senses enjoy and what do you avoid? I spoke to people afterwards who told me that question was very interesting, and that they like this and that. I asked them what else they could have explored in that question, you know, why do you like lasagna? Did you have it as a child, is it something from the aroma, does it bring up childhood memories? It’s an opportunity to connect the dots in your mind that may not have been connected before. Also the questions around fear: what type of fear do you most see in others and what fears have you overcome? That can be very vulnerable.
North: Will you be running these events in the future?
Ben: My big vision is to turn it into an ongoing thing, whether it’s a not-for-profit or charity, where you get a bit of a following and people pay upfront. The restaurant Two Before Ten took a bit of a risk because I couldn’t guarantee that anyone would turn up, so they were great. We could also run events in restaurants where people could have a curated meal and speak to someone they don’t know, and pay in advance. We could also have more accessible events like picnics by the lake. That way you’re hitting different price points but also connecting different demographics. You could have ones themed around different days such as Christmas in July and various opportunities for people to connect. It would also be great to have buy in from different venues without charging people.
North: What’s the biggest challenge in keeping this as a sustainable event?
Ben: Keeping the questions different and interesting. The next set of questions I’ve got are focused on the concept of work; why do we work? What is work for? Why work to pay bills? People have different ideas and underlying motivations about work.
Also, the event wasn’t as diverse as I wanted it to be; the average age was 28. Some of the feedback was that people from older generations wanted to see older people. I think that’s where we’ll see the beauty of it, when we get really diverse groups of people, or from other backgrounds, like refugees.
North: So what’s the main takeaway behind A Feast of Strangers?
Ben: The idea is that you don’t understand everyone’s story until you talk to them openly. You don’t have to be friends. You don’t even have to agree on things. You’re just discussing. This is what conversation can be like. There’s a whole lot of potential. Some people are looking for an out-of-this-world uncomfortable experience.
Ben is a born and bred Canberran and has recently graduated from ANU with a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) and Science. He is currently the Curator of the Canberra Global Shapers Hub and is looking to commence his PhD in 2018 looking at innovation in mental health.
For more info about the Canberra muse society, check out the Canberra Global Shapers.
Read about Zeldin’s original Oxford muse society here.
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