Permissive Conversation Spaces

Is it possible to create zones and areas in public, where we feel comfortable talking to strangers?

Post BarCamp Sheffield 2.1 I was mulling over the impact of the event and some of the technologies we implemented. On analysis I realised that a lot of the success of the event arose from the fantastic conversations that occured there.

Most of the people having these great conversations with one another were perfect strangers on arrival. Yet in addition to the scheduled conversations, there were side conversations running on everything from the joy of pure nonsense to religious theology. I began to muse that we had created a “permissive space” for these conversations to happen. That when people feel comfortable about talking about their passions thoughts and interest they will do so.

Building on this thinking, I realised that there are other permissive conversational and behavioural technologies within society (ie. things that grant us permission to behave as we’d wish). For example drugs and alcohol grant permision for deeper or more ridiculous conversation depending on your mood. Yes there is a degree of “effects”, but I believe that some of these effects are more psychological – if we believe it is socially excusable to behave in a certain way because we have been drinking, then we are more likely to do so.

The tag cloud experiment, granted permission to be ridiculous, and set a certain tone. As well as providing easy simple ice breakers for conversation.

Getting to the point.

I believe that it is possible to introduce social permissions into public spaces to encourage conversations between strangers and build communities as a result. These technologies may be simpler than we think, experimentation is required.

I propose that we create “Conversational Spaces” in public places. See below for two examples.conversationbench


Text for bench reads. “Conversation space” and “by sitting here, you are happy to have a chat with a stranger”, text for bus stop is the same, but replaces sitting with standing. If people want to have a conversation then they just follow the rule, if someone else comes along, they both recognise that it is acceptable to chat there.

This assumes that the reason we dont talk to each other is we think that strangers may see us as threatening, or with an agenda, or think we’re mad and therefore rarely breach this unspoken social contract. The causes of this go deeper, by I haven’t the inclination to describe them here. If we grant permission to talk to us, by being in such as space, then we can remove this percieved social obstacle.

Yes we may need more rules, we may need less, we may need prompts. But why not start the experiment. It’s cheap, possibly doable without permission (but better still if publically endorsed) as a form of Guerilla Community Action.

The issue of perverts, weirdos and nutcases: firstly we need to start recognising that most “strangers” are not weirdo’s, perverts or nutcases, secondly these people are in the public domain anyway (and rarely concerned whether you want to talk to them or not). We need to steer away from paranoia paralysis if we are to achieve anything socially beneficial, lets introduce the rules if we need them, and if your scared – just don’t sit on the bench.

This idea is not disimilar from the Buddy Bench concept, which enjoys success in playgrounds. http://www.pendlewood.com/early-years-play-equipment/early-years-seating/buddy-bench_184.html

Also it should be noted “the democracy bench” concept arose out of a “Who want’s to be?” event run by The People Speak.


6 thoughts on “Permissive Conversation Spaces”

  1. I like where you’re going with this.

    One of the reasons I set up SpaceMakers was a sense that the classic model of the home/workplace/”third place” is breaking down – and that this is a good thing. The idea of the “third place” (the pub or coffee shop) as the space in which we’re able to be sociable reflects the anti-social character of industrial-era workplaces and the loneliness of home-life in the age of the nuclear family. All of this is increasingly in flux, and the basic sociability of human beings may be starting to reassert itself, pushing out from the native reservation of the third place, across the social landscape.

    A couple of recent practical interventions have a similar feel to your suggestion. First, there’s the current outbreak of street pianos across London (surely inspired by the Sheffield street piano which we covered in Pick Me Up years ago). Then there’s Pam McLean’s plan for “Safe Smiling Zones” – she’s talking about encouraging people to chalk the pavement with small zones in which it’s OK to smile at strangers. You should definitely compare notes with her:


    Look forward to hearing how this develops!



  2. I like the idea of this, but the question for me is how do you allow this to retain its ‘innocence’ and not become something perceived as being a bit weird. I’d be interested to know how you could take the awkwardness out of the ‘I’d like a chat’ message by perhaps using gaming and or bluetooth alerts as a way into a conversation. This is something I know we’ve talked about before in a different context in the commuters connect idea we were looking at together last year…




    Still think there’s something in this! (But then I would say that wouldn’t I?)


  3. Hi Alice

    It certainly follows on from those themes and conversations.

    I’d like to avoid bluetooth or any technology that’s not immediately accessible by all, with respect to this particular experiment as then it’s non exclusive and not restricted in terms of users by technology.

    I’ve consciously avoided any kind of prompts as to begin with, we need to see how people would actually react. It’s likely that some will perceive it as weird, and some wont (like hitch hiking), and it won’t be used by everybody at first. However by making it available to everybody in public, visible space, we increase the chance of the technology being adopted.

    If additional technologies (or words, phrases and rules in this instance) are required then we can add them as we go.


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