'Talk to me' badges aimed at making London less lonely

'Talk to Me' badges invite strangers to strike up conversation with their wearers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 July, 2014, 1:36am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 July, 2014, 1:36am


It's a typical urban routine: Sit on the subway, headphones in, fiddling with the smartphone to avoid eye contact with fellow passengers.

Now a new campaign called "Talk to Me" wants to break that habit and change London's image as one of the loneliest places in Britain.

"Talking to strangers is a social taboo," said David Blackwell, one of the project's coordinators. "It's something we're inordinately afraid of. Can you imagine how different a city would be if you could just open up to other people with no expectation that a stranger must want something from you?"

Blackwell and other volunteers are handing out badges with the message "Talk to me, I'll talk to you." It's an invitation to strike up a conversation with the wearer, anywhere - whether it's on the commute or waiting in line for coffee.

The crowd-funded project is motivated in part by a recent Sheffield University survey that found 30 per cent of people in the British capital felt isolated and uninvolved in their community.

Of course, the whole concept is opt-in: If you want to keep to yourself, Blackwell says, that's fine. Just don't pick up a badge.

There are fears that wearing a badge could invite unwelcome attention or street harassment.

"In principle, I like it," said Susie Feltz, who was visiting Camden Market. "But there's no way I would feel comfortable if my 20-year-old daughter was walking around with a badge giving creeps an excuse to talk to her."

Talk to Me co-founder Polly Akhurst said the badges came with advice to withdraw from any conversation that made the wearer uncomfortable. Overall, the feedback had been overwhelmingly positive, she said.

In August the charity is organising the first official "Talk to Me Day" with flash mobs, social events and a picnic designed to get Londoners chatting. So far the initiative has attracted £8,000 (HK$105,000 dollars) in funding through the online fundraising platform Kickstarter.

Organisers say they have already been contacted by people in Paris, Berlin, Seoul and some US cities who would like to start similar projects.

"The only problem we've had so far is that once people start talking, it can be difficult to get them to stop," Akhurst said.