Week 6: How To Actually Talk For A Change
Well, this should be awkward.
Welcome to the sixth week of Everything Is Amazing - a newsletter about trying to see the things hidden from you in full view, and about discovering what truly matters by randomly stumbling over it.
(These aspirational analogies have nothing to do with the fact that I’m myopic and clumsy. Total coincidence.)
OK. So…I think we need to talk.
A month after the first national lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon the UK, I was living in a wooden cabin on the west Scottish coast (the same one I’m writing this in, because a year later I’ve come full circle).
A cabin in the coast. It sounds idyllic - but the relative isolation was getting to me.
I was at the edge of a suburb, but for lockdown reasons, I wasn’t seeing anyone when I went for a walk. I wasn’t a local so I didn’t know anyone around here. My usual approaches for making new friends - blundering ineptly into small-talk, tripping and falling into people’s gardens, being savaged by their pets and so on - were denied to me. In the unlikely event I did manage to make a new friend, we’d have to stand metres apart and shout at each other. Socially it was all a great big Nope.
I’m sure you have your own version of this. It hit us all hard in this way.
So the weeks passed - and while I was in a really beautiful place (thank you, Scotland, I am so grateful for how welcoming you were), I also started feeling profoundly alone.
Loneliness came at me from an unexpected direction. Rather than feeling sad, I felt uninspired. Blunted, like a knife that needed sharpening. I realised I needed a certain amount of serendipity - like overheard conversations, like different perspectives and counter-arguments, and like the madcap, fast-paced bouncing around of ideas that requires another person to be fully present.
I realised all these things usually helped me write, and helped me find things worth writing about - but for now, they were gone.
But what about social media? Hey, I still had that!
Yeah. Well. If ever there was a time that showed me how utterly inadequate the internet is - and in particular how social media is - as a replacement for real-life social interaction, it was 2020. (I know many, many others felt this too. Reckon you might be one of them.)
So I fell back on my best and most reliable survival strategy - one that has stood me in good stead for nearly five decades now.
I decided to do something stupid.
Firstly, I created a web-chat invite system on a free web calendar - the kind of thing normally used by important business-type people, which added to the fun of it.
Then I invited all my online friends to book a call with me for exactly no reason whatsoever.
These were individual, one-to-one calls. I’d done a few massive Zoom calls early on, which felt like going to the pub: ie. fun, joyful, noisy, incoherent and completely exhausting. I also didn’t want something structured and formal that felt like a meeting:
“Sorry, I’ll…I’ll have to interrupt you for a second, Helen. John? I’ve noticed you haven’t spoken yet. Do you have anything to bring to our alleged friendship?”
As well as keeping it person-to-person, I wanted something unpredictable. And I figured there wasn’t much that was less predictable than having a call for no stated reason whatsoever - so that’s how I publicly described it.
And dozens signed up.
And we chatted - and it was delightful.
It really scratched that itch, and I felt recharged again. (And everyone I spoke to seemed to feel the same way! Or at least they didn’t immediately un-friend me, which I’m taking to mean the same thing.)
Recklessly giddy with triumph, I threw my net wider. Anywhere I could, I posted the link - and after it got picked up by an influential friend’s newsletter, I started getting calls with complete strangers. Journalists, a scientist, a brilliant young Renaissance-brained musician from Texas, an architect, a salmon fisherman. All sorts of folk I’d have been hard-pressed to meet in person, let alone talk to.
All in all, over the following 3 months, I had just short of a hundred calls. Every one of them felt like a tiny dose of blessed normality, to help keep both of us moving forward towards the full-sized variety just over the horizon.
And now it’s time to do it again.
Starting later this week, I’m opening up a few calls a day to whoever is mad and brave enough to sign up, using this Calendly page:
You could do two things with this.
1) Steal the idea from me. No, seriously. Do that. It really works. Over the last 12 months, how many times did you strike up a conversation with a stranger? Do you miss it - that little electric sizzle of nervous, delighted awkwardness that pushes you right into this moment, right here now, and keeps you on your toes? If the answer is “since you mention it, YES” - then open a free account at Calendly or some other similar service, put aside half an hour or more, a few days a week. Ask people you miss chatting with in person - then invite people you’ve never met in person. Try it. It might be exactly what you need.
2) Book a call with me. Yes, really. Here’s the link again. It’ll be fun - or, it’ll be over in just half an hour! Either way, it’ll be a tiny adventure for both of us.
What’s filling up your free time right now?
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Images: Mike Sowden; Jan Tinneberg; Calendly.