Imagine going for dinner with a total stranger. There’s a delicious three-course meal. There are candles. There’s even a pianist. It could almost be a blind date but romancing isn’t on the cards. The focus of the experience is much more rare: meaningful conversation born from a menu of carefully-curated questions.
On 10th April 2014, the Year Here Fellows were set a challenge by Faculty Lead Sophie Howarth. With a venue and a budget of £100, we were tasked with designing and delivering a ‘conversation meal’ to a diverse group of strangers the following night.
Conversation meals are a concept developed by the historian Theodore Zeldin. They seek to encourage meaningful exchange between strangers, opening up portals into otherwise distant worlds. They are, as Sophie puts it, “a radical way to gain insight into other people’s lives.” Over an honest meal and a menu of thoughtful conversation starters, two newly-introduced diners get to know each other – side-stepping small talk and niceties and heading straight for the gritty stuff.
Sophie Slater was charged with creating the conversation menu. She eased the diners in with starters before the mains were served: When was the last time you cried? What have you forgiven your parents for? What’s the hardest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Before the event started we placed a question under each seat, which asked our guests to rank how comfortable they were talking to strangers. At the end of the meal, we repeated the question on our ‘bill’ – we were to be paid with feedback only.
The results were great. At the end of the night, almost all our guests reported feeling more comfortable talking to strangers than before. The event was described as “surprisingly joyful”, “completely unexpected” and “stimulating, involving, challenging.” When asked what they had learned from the experience, one diner said they had “opened up about something [they had] never felt comfortable about”. When asked if they felt changed, one guest said they felt “more aware of where I am at somehow. Willing to take more risks in conversation, to be less safe”. Other diners said they felt emboldened, that a view that they had held strongly was slightly weaker, and that they were less apprehensive about strangers and small talk.
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