Just Say Hello: Making Vancouver a friendlier city, one cup of coffee at a time

Social isolation doesn't just lead to lonely nights at home. It also causes health problems. How can Vancouver fix its friendliness problem? A social project called Just Say Hello offers a very low-tech solution.

David Beattie is launching Just Say Hello. It's for our own good.

Is anybody out there?

"You can't fix loneliness, but you can try to erode it." David Beattie speaks from experience, the experience of living in Vancouver for 25 years.

Beattie comes to Vancouver from Durban, South Africa; by way of London and East Asia. He currently lives in Renfrew-Collingwood, which he describes as "so fragmented, so fractured, almost nobody speaks to anybody else." This was the test bed for his social venture, Just Say Hello.

The idea behind Just Say Hello is very simple: place a welcoming sign on a coffee-shop table to turn it into a place where it's socially safe to talk to strangers.

In Vancouver, this is easier said than done. Says Beattie, "I tried to pilot Just Say Hello at the Bamboo Café, and it was a complete failure. I was there for two hours, and the only other people who would have anything to do with me were other white males."

A former journalist and self-described amateur sociologist, Beattie had been researching social isolation. The more you read about the phenomenon of social isolation, the more you'll want to, well, not be socially isolated. To that end, Beattie and his friend Richard Drake got active on meetup.com, which has over 1,000 groups based in Vancouver. (If you didn't know about meetup.com, you're certainly not alone: the site doesn't have much of a public presence here.)

Just Say Hello is modeled after Meetup.com, which was launched in New York City in 2011. Meetup.com relied on scraping existing blogs and BBS groups, basically spamming them with fake "International [your interest] Day" invitations in order to get like-minded individuals to meet in meatspace.

Internet users are more savvy these days, and Vancouver is inherently less friendly than New York. The fact that Vancouver needs something like Just Say Hello so much is an indicator of how hard it will be to make the project succeed.

Also, says Beattie, meetups are bound by their own rigidity. In Vancouver, he says, "people want to be able to go to a place when they feel like going there. Local,local, local." There's also the factor, he adds, of our not wanting to look desperate.

As for Vancouverites being reluctant to initiate conversations with strangers, Beattie doesn't blame racism or xenophobia: "There's... an expectation that you're not gonna be interested in me." That's a Vancouver thing, insists Beattie: "There's no serious argument [against] the claim that this city is different. Different from Toronto, or Calgary, or Seattle, or Montreal. It's just cold. It just is."

Just Say Hello, then, is about giving strangers permission to to think they're interesting. Because you probably are.

It's not just you

It seems I'm not alone in being alone...

– The Police, "Message in a Bottle"

Newcomers to Vancouver share depressingly similar stories of feeling left out. The Vancouver Foundation's 2012 Connection and Engagement Study(pdf) confirmed what you already had guessed, after interviewing nearly 4,000 people:

  • Metro Vancouver can be a hard place to make friends.
  • Our neighbourhood connections are cordial, but weak.
  • Many people in metro Vancouver are retreating from community life.
  • There are limits to how people see diversity as an opportunity to forge meaningful connections.
  • The affordability issue in Metro Vancouver is affecting people’s attitudes and beliefs.

Beattie and Drake would add geography to that list: Vancouver is long and narrow, and cross-town travel can be slow and inconvenient. Beattie also cites what he calls "screen life", which you might also know as the blue-face phenomenon: commuters (and pedestrians) moving through the city, heads down, faces illuminated by their smartphone screens. Asserts Beattie, "Devices are divisive."

Vancouver's weather is also a factor: it's gloomy for so much of the year (this winter's non-ski season notwithstanding), but not cold enough to require community-wide snow-clearing efforts. Teamwork breaks down barriers and makes neighbours out of strangers.

Also, notes, Beattie, even "the best will in the world" cannot overcome language barriers.

(Those language barriers may be perceived as opposed to concrete, though: your spoken English may well be better than you think it is; or maybe you've been too shy to test out the Mandarin or Italian you've been studying.)

Drake, hailing from England, described Vancouver as being in its urban infancy, since so relatively few people have roots here. Adds Beattie, "It's like an airport terminal. It rubs off. I'm become that way. It's like an accent."

Just Say Hello intends to set in place a system that leads to small, spontaneous meetups almost everywhere, and at almost any time. A recognizable logo saying Just Say Hello will be printed on tabletop signs for coffee shops. Patrons can join people sitting at those tables, or ask staff for the sign and thereby invite others to join them simply for a beverage and conversation. It is that simple, at heart simply an invitation to say hello and chat.

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What David is doing is great but I can't help but highlight the hubris in creating a new group to tackle something that has already been done well by so many others. It's a very Vancouver solution to create multiple unrelated groups instead of approaching each-other to work together. The article mentioned that the inaugural event was a flop, did he speak to orgs like BeMyAmigo, Creative Mornings, Draw by Night, or Likemind Vancouver?

DAVID BEATTIE: I am embarrassed to say that until now I had not heard of any of those groups. I read a lot of local papers and websites, I have more than 2000 Facebook friends, I am surprised that I had not heard of any. Since first reading this I have been to the Facebook page of each, joined or liked, and suggested we get together to discuss potentially working together. Todd is right that creating multiple unrelated groups is not helpful, and typically Vancouver. I would gladly scrap our fiefdom and come together if we could be more than the sum of our parts. 
Todd says creating group to tackle social isolation has been done so well by others. In terms of what each appears to have as their goal, that may be true, but none of them are really high profile, and to tackle something so enormous really needs a huge movement. More in my response to further paragraphs. 

TODD SMITH:The issue with social isolation in Vancouver is not that we need more cliquey groups that tell us it's ok to socialize. It requires a larger effort to bridge these little pockets of community, making the ones already in progress more visible and uplifting the mentality that it's ok for Vancouverites to be friendly in public spaces. And to a large extent it requires men to learn how not to be so damn creepy.
DAVID BEATTIE:It certainly needs uplifting the mentality that it is okay for Vancouverites (I mean METRO Vancouverites, this is true for the entire metro area) to be friendly in public spaces. The question then is - how best to make that happen. Just Say Hello, our board of eight directors and dozens of Meetup.com members, feels that setting up a SYSTEM for people themselves to feel safe and not embarrassed to either invite folk to chat to them, in coffee shops, or to respond to the invitations of strangers, in coffee shops, is a good way because coffee shops are relatively safe, they are low barrier re price, and they are all over the place, open early and close late. Some are even open all the time, ie McDonalds. "It requires men to learn how not to be so damn creepy." Alas, true. During our pioneer stage, in which we go into coffee shops with our little signs and flyers, and do the outreach, we are very deliberately going in pairs, threes and fours. In every case at least one woman must be present. A pair consisting of two women is fine, same for a threesome, but even one or two guys alone without women is a no-no - not at this stage. Our experience shows us doing it with guys alone does not work nearly as well, of course many women are going to suspect motives. As for how to teach men to be less creepy - big project, outside of our mandate. TODD SMITH:A few other good places to look—while avoiding lecherous white men—are: Hot Art Wet City, Pixel Crafters, Net Tuesday, Association of Fundraising Professionals of Vancouver, BCTIA, Society of Graphic Designers, Vancouver ACM Siggraph, Ayden Gallery, Kafka Coffee, Fuse (at the Art Gallery)... because without sounding too brash, the reality is that you can "just say hello" in a lot of places and have a great conversation without a sign in the window instructing patrons to do so.DAVID BEATTIE: Of course our sign does not "instruct" patrons to say hello, it invites them to do so, it gives permission to do so. I feel it is also fair to say that sometimes men other than white ones are also lecherous, and creepy. 

TODD SMITH:Life in Vancouver is weirdly exacerbated by Canadian shyness/politeness, transient lifestyles, and assumed personal space. We're all sitting in cafes—places that by definition were created for social interaction—hoping to have conversations with strangers but often too shy to make the first move. I think that part of this is a fear of rejection or intrusion, but really, if done politely the worst anyone can say is, "no".DAVID BEATTIE:Could not have put it better myself - "weirdly exacerbated" by all the factors Todd mentions and a host of others. I am neither Canadian born nor shy or even polite; I am a brash, extroverted British-South African-Canadian lol. Most of our members are not Canadian born, at least two-thirds I reckon. Fear of rejection and intrusion is EXACTLY IT, in a nutshell. We do not fool ourselves into thinking our campaign is going to be easy. It is going to be a long and slow road, we need lots of money for lots of publicity, and we need hundreds and hundreds of volunteers to pioneer it in coffee shops all over the place, nearly all the time. Will you not join us?