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.

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Just Say Hello isn't about someone handing you a flyer on the street (and thank heavens for that), nor is it about walking around with a sign that says "please talk to me". Urban dwellers have a natural aversion to that sort of thing, thinking that anyone engaging us that arbitrarily must be damaged in some way.

Hell, offering free hugs requires liability insurance in Sydney, and will get you arrested in Riyadh.

Instead, the Just Say Hello signs will turn an ordinary table into a sort of safe zone, where we give ourselves permission to talk to strangers.

It's interesting that this task isn't getting pounced upon by Vancouver's population of digital natives. That's probably because the last thing a fish will discover is water: born into a world where phones aren't used for phone calls and you can life a mostly-functional life without direct human interaction, perhaps some Millenials don't know what they're missing.

Perhaps it's not surprising that it takes a fifty-something to tackle Vancouver's talking-to-each-other problem; perhaps it's also not surprising that that solution turns out to be analog. "It's a greeting written on a piece of paper for people to see, "says Beattie. "I mean, that's what it is at base, right?"

Beattie says, "I never saw either a TV set or a TV program until I was 17. Not that TV is the same as the Internet, but you get where I am coming from."

Among the dozen or so people involved in Just Say Hello, Beattie points out that it isn't all... people of a certain age. He mentions Bonnie Nish of Pandora's Collective as part of the team.

We're only hurting ourselves

In gauging Vancouver's infamous unfriendliness, Beattie was fairly kind: "It is not that the city is hostile per se, there is very little aggression. It is not even indifferent, I would say it is just massively diffident. People have little social confidence."

Like obesity and smoking, social isolation has concrete public-health effects; and those effects are not positive. The link between social isolation and early mortality has already been established. Social psychologist John Cacioppo has studied loneliness extensively, and found that socially isolated people carry more stress, as their brains subtly tell them that they're under threat. Cacioppo found that social isolation is even more prevalent in North America than obesity.

Drake mentions that those who are socially isolated face a 45% greater chance of dying early, as per one of Cacioppo's studies.

Tell the people

Who would be the target population for a campaign such as Just Say Hello? Vancouver has a bit of everything, or, rather, everyone. Beyond the young professional set, a meetup format like Just Say Hello could be useful for bringing those suffering from depression out into the world, says Drake: even getting a few people who are feeling down to internalize the fact that they're not alone can be a benefit.

This could be extended to other marginalized groups: imagine mixing an open-ended meetup format like Just Say Hello with, say, Mark Brand's sandwich tokens.

Just Say Hello is setting up as a non-profit, and Beattie has gotten in touch with the Vancouver Foundation with what should amount to good news: a project that takes action on the 2012 Connection and Engagement Study.

Any money raised for Just Say Hello would go mostly towards advertising: this sort of thing will only work if people know to look out for it, or know that they can start their own zone of urban friendliness.

Diversity is also key when stocking the fish pond of Just Say Hello tables. Whom would you approach out of the blue?

Beattie laments, "A fiftysomething cracker like me? Forget about it!" His friend Lorna, he says, is the cavalry: an Asian female. As a fledgling project, Just Say Hello has to use every weapon in its arsenal. The stakes are high: this is about public health.

If this sort of thing catches on," says Beattie, "it could be transformative."

What could go wrong?

With any meetup scenario, there's the potential for abuse. Beattie mentions an ESL meetup that was stalked by sexual predators who targeted young Japanese and Korean women. Organizers had to specifically warn the ESL students not to give out their phone numbers to white dudes promising to "help them with their English".

Other abuse scenarios involve those who would use Just Say Hello (or something like it) to solicit business, or to push religion or a political cause.

Further down the threat ladder, you'd also have people showing up in hopes of blagging a free cup of coffee.

Will it work?

Drake and Beattie used to live in Courtenay during the Nineties, where Drake worked on recycling and community education projects, "mobilizing people for behavior change." Describing himself as a hanger-on, Drake said, "For me, this is a grand experiment... we may find it's a catalyst for something else."

Humans are social animals, but our environment can prevent us from socializing. Loneliness can slowly kill us if we don't assert our humanity from time to time.

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