The Revolution of Small Conversations by Simon Eales
I was bloody nervous, even 12 hours out from my conversation with Matt Kulesza. He is, literally, a professional at this. He’s been flown to New York City; he’s been courted by the social media industry; and he can call himself a ‘public speaker.’ All because of a small idea he had while sitting on the toilet.
“I was on the phone, on the toilet, as I like to do quite regularly, you know, taking a shit,” Matt begins, inauspiciously, “and I was scrolling through my Facebook going, like, ‘fuck, who are all these people? Maybe I’ll start deleting them,’ and I started deleting one or two people, and my question before deleting them was, ‘could I have a coffee with this person?’ and I was, like, ‘nah, I don’t think so; definitely not with that person!’ Then I was, like, ‘actually that’s an interesting idea,’ because sometimes I was, like, ‘actually, I’d like to have a coffee with them,’ and then I was, like, ‘I’m gonna have a coffee with all these people!’
That small idea turned into a long and still-extending string of small conversations translated into blog form at 1000+ Coffees. Matt lets magic happen at the smallest possible scale: mano a mano; tête à tête; one on one; alpha and omega; two humans coming together to shoot the shit, as we might say. I’m lucky enough to be his latest conversant, and he’s in the dubious position of being mine. As we agree ad nauseam, the simple act of sitting down with another person can lead to extraordinary things.
Humans do it. Animals do it in their own way. All organic matter does it. Particles at a cosmic level do it. It’s something that, if we’re going to get down to cups and saucers, is elemental to the state of being and creation.
And it’s no coincidence that coffee is often involved. There is now the divine omnipotence of that wonderful drug, caffeine, in our fair city, and the expedition of its associated culture to all capital cities, country towns, and domestic bench tops across the nation. (Many years ago, the cricket team at my stuffy private school would rate other schools by the quality of the lunch its mothers provided; now, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the kids could order a Brazilian pour-over with their kale and quinoa kimchi in between sessions of play). But, we forget what it lets us do.
Further back in the day, a city very much like our own went through its own conversational revolution. It was late-seventeenth century London, when coffee was beginning to be imported from the Ottoman Empire and the laneways and inns of Cornhill started to welcome a general turn towards hyperaware lucidity. Think about all the conversing that could suddenly occur after centuries of licentious drunkenness. Across the strait, leaders of the French Enlightenment like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, frequented the sexy Parisian coffeehouse scene.
It’s in this framework that we can best conceptualise the very idea of small conversations being useful to society. As surfs, tilling onions and dying at the age of 30, we would have conversed, but about things like how the geese were less infested with foot rot than this time last year, and general superstition about the benevolence of the saints. It took Decartes’ phrase, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ to formalise the notion that we even had a self from which we could speak to someone else. After this moment, if we were to ask, ‘Mummy, what is Enlightenment?,’ as Emmanuel Kant did, we too would emerge with the injunction, ‘have the courage to use your own understanding!’
And, that’s when we began inflicting our opinions on anyone who would listen. As Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Kant should have, and did, spend a lot more time detailing what ‘understanding’ meant, but it is safe to say that most who seize the opportunity have a pretty lax idea of what using it entails. And so they should, because, whether stupid or not, as long as we keep talking to each other, good stuff happens. Our willingness to lead, or express ourselves eloquently, to follow someone with a great idea, or create a brilliant art piece, is another issue altogether.
We’ve generally done really well to ensure that little get-togethers become big things. I think we’ve done so well, frankly, because not doing so is impossible. An act always creates waves, some more easily detected than others. Take this classic example of a dancing man and his first follower. “Three is a crowd and a crowd is news!”
A small conversation, whether verbal, physical, or other (hypnosis-related, I guess), can spark complete ideological change. It is the very event during which models for future action are formed; it is the platform for the transfer of vital information; and, where the division of labour improves our lives at a macro level, small conversations fill the holes created by not completing entire tasks ourselves. ‘Just talk to each other!’ is the exasperated cry of many a corporate human relations guru, relationship therapist, and junior sporting team coach.
And then there is the out-and-out therapeutic benefit of being honoured as a human being by others of our species. A great example is the RUOK? campaign, a suicide prevention initiative based on encouraging people to use the simple conversation starter, ‘are you okay?’ The ‘talking cure’ of psychotherapy is not only helpful for its ability to unveil information held in our subconscious, but, perhaps more significantly, for the actual initiation of human connection. “It’s made me a more open person,” Matt says, “and it’s made me a more empathetic person, as far as just listening to people and asking questions, and in terms of opening yourself up to learn from peoples’ experiences, has changed me so much.”
But, ‘how do I do this,’ you might ask, ‘I’m a terrible conversationalist!’ As discussed briefly at the start of our chat, it took a significant investment from both Matt and I to have our meeting produce a good flow of words and ideas. We had to plan, which involved me proposing we meet, he sincerely agreeing it would be a good idea, and us choosing a venue and time, and then rejigging these plans as it got closer. Each of these stages involved new and renewed commitments to the conversation that still had not yet happened. This is not to say the conversation couldn’t have been spontaneous; you can work these things out in seconds.
Then, we thought, the quality of our conversation relied on both having something to say, coupled with this simple act of listening. Matt remarked that it was the latter of these skills that he’s developed most profoundly over the course of 1000+ Coffees. “If you just open yourself up to listen to someone, there’s the potential for huge life-changing epiphanies,” he reflects, laughing. We are drilled to formulate opinions and express them compellingly. Note how we are primarily drawn to engage in social media by making a status update: ‘say what you are thinking right now! Do it!’ The insidiousness of social media could just lie in how much time and effort we spend regulating this self-assertion, getting it to fit a tight and ever-changing notion of what’s normal. We are invited to actively listen and respond on far fewer occasions.
Maybe, as antidote, we could listen to ourselves a little more. We could appreciate all we’ve done to this point, and then explore ways to use those skills and that knowledge to benefit others. In this state, we could easily open to new learning without fear of being outwitted. Because being in the world with other people is really just a conversation: two different things connecting to create a beautiful new third thing.