Talking heads: Conversation Salons coming to Cork

Talking heads: Conversation Salons coming to Cork
SPREAD THE WORD: Founder of Conversation Salons Heather Bourke — with friend Beth Kiberd and partner Micheal Dolan — says, ‘Conversation is the most valuable universal currency of human beings — the glue that holds society together ’. Picture: Barry Cronin

An initiative to counter the disconnect in society is bringing people together to chat about what matters to them, writes

Margaret Jennings[

HAVE you noticed how we are withdrawing more from each other in everyday life? It’s been a gradual slippery slope. While once we used to stop to have a chat across the garden fence with our neighbour, now we may not even know who lives next door, so hectic have our daily routines become, as we leave home early and return late.

Not only are we increasingly bent over digital screens — lost in our own universe — but fewer of us gather any more in traditional community settings, such as the church, the pub and the parish hall.

Even when we are among others, queuing for the bus, or at the supermarket, we are not saying ‘how’s the craic?’ to the person beside us; we are scrolling through our phones.

The above scenario painted by Dubliner Heather Bourke has almost a dystopian undercurrent to it, but one of the repercussions of this reality, happening here and now, she says, is that we are increasingly becoming lonely as a race, disconnecting and losing our ability to converse in a meaningful way, face-to-face.

The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) reports that one in four people aged over 50 feels lonely, but this is also a young people’s problem and both an urban and rural issue, argues Bourke.

“Conversation is the most valuable universal currency of human beings — the glue that holds society together — yet it has become totally devalued in modern society. This is a looming crisis for society in terms of relationships, empathy, human connection, community and mental health, but not one that is really being addressed yet.”

Bourke, however, has been addressing it in her own unique way. Four years ago, she spearheaded a venture in Dublin, she calls it Conversation Salons, which are organised get-togethers, open to all, where participants sit around tables in a cafe-like setting and talk about issues that matter to them on a personal and societal level, quite often to total strangers.

Now, she hopes the concept — which has been tried out in centres around the country — will evolve, because people of all ages are “hungry” to connect, she believes.

“With the loneliness epidemic we might tend to think of it as only older people living alone in their homes, but it’s not. Younger people may have their 500 friends or rakes of followers on social media, but they still don’t have the social skills; they don’t have a real community.

“Where I’ve held Conversation Salons in Dublin it’s a total mix of people, about an equal amount of men and women, all walks of life, and we get 20-somethings up to 70-somethings.

“Some of the younger people say they were reluctant to come, because they were shy, but then they feel safe and they enjoy the atmosphere. Everyone is so friendly.”

One of the main criteria of the salons is to celebrate diversity in all forms, to get away from the communication loops we get wrapped up in, not only online — where our own opinions and views are fed back to us — but also in who we surround ourselves with.

“You have to get out of your echo chamber and meet people who are from different backgrounds and are different ages and hold different views. It’s about celebrating diversity — we have been very successful in that — you can see how people thrive. And those who come love what salons have to offer, which is about connecting people, plain and simple; building community so you have real social networks, not online ones.”

The diversity of opinion and the depth of conversation is sparked by Heather’s Conversation Menus, topics she has chosen to inspire stimulating thought and exchange.

“The whole idea of the menu is to move away from superficial chit-chat and small talk; it’s all about human beings talking about what they really care about, what matters to them, so the menus include themes that enquire about your personal wellbeing and self-exploration as well as what’s happening in your community, in society and globally, so it’s a balance of the personal and the bigger issues in society.

Ensuring the salons are a safe comfortable space where you can say what you really think, or believe, but be treated respectfully, is underpinned by the ground rules she has set, based around people listening with sensitivity and respect to each other and sharing speaking time fairly: “The whole ethos is that a salon is an open-minded place of tolerance and empathy and understanding. We want to bring down barriers.”

Bourke, who worked as a social worker for 21 years and retrained as a life coach doing group-work around creativity and self-development, could be tapping into the zeitgeist; she has noticed that in other parts of the world similar types of projects attempting to stem the tide of human disconnection and re-build community through conversation are popping up.

“My whole life has always been about human potential — drawing out the best in people in social work and the same in life coaching — and for me, the salons are about activating the best in people.”

There are two summer salons due to run in Cork: Saturday, July 14, 3pm to 5pm in the gardens of Nano Nagle Place, Douglas Street; and Wednesday, August 15, upstairs in Starbucks, Opera Lane, from 7pm to 10pm. From September 12, salons will be held every two weeks — the venue is to be confirmed. Admission to the Conversation Salons is €5. You can find out more at conversationsalons.ie and facebook.com/conversationsalons

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