Cafe culture

IssueSeptember - November 2004
Feature by Vicki Robin

When you put strangers, caffeine and ideas in the same room, brilliant things can happen. For that very reason, the British Parliament banned coffee-houses in the 1700s as hotbeds of sedition. Might we brew up a similar social liveliness now? With democracy, critical thinking and “the ties that bind” all under siege, this may be the most radical cup of coffee you ever drink.

How it all began

Conversation Cafe's arose from the questions, “How can we create a culture of conversation? What is the minimum set of conditions that will allow strangers in public places shift from `small talk to BIG TALK'?”

We believed that conversation is an antidote to loneliness and social isolation,that it's democracy in action and that it could counteract the dumbing down of the US.

In July 2001, Susan Partnow, Habib Rose and I each began hosting weekly conversations in Cafe's to experiment with variations of this theme. Over the summer we developed the basic process and agreements and some of the outreach strategies that form the backbone of the Conversation Cafe's. Flushed with our small success, Susan and I and two other inveterate conversationalists met on 10 September to wonder together how we might expand our experiment city-wide — nay! nationwide. We even came up with an imaginative plan of what we thought we'd do... someday. Then 11 September hit, and within a week I was grabbed with the passion to spread the Cafe's throughout Seattle as a way to process this event and respond thoughtfully as citizens. Susan, I and several others became the core team.

Trick or treat

The “look and feel” — tone, visuals, language — invoked a “trick or treat” feel, a combination of risky yet safe. Talking to strangers is certainly risky — Conversation Cafe's make that safe. The taboos against talking with folks you don't know are major — they might hurt you, reject you, ridicule you or follow you home. At Conversation Cafe's you are safe because there's a host who will be friendly, manage the weirdos, keep things going. You don't have to speak, but you'll get a turn to speak. And our promise to everyone: “No committees will be formed”. You will not end up with a “to-do” list or further commitments. Many interesting people can't afford one more thing to do — but they would love a weekly conversational oasis.


Baboo Mondonedo

Vicki Robin introduced the idea of conversation cafes. Basically, it is a democratic way for hearing everyone out. A group of eight or fewer get together to talk about a subject. The rules are: no judgements, don't hog the conversation. People talk one at a time and this is guaranteed by using a “talking object” (can be any-thing, a rock, a fruit - whatever). Someone introduces the topic and starts the conversation rolling. The talking object is passed around and only the person holding it can talk. After one round, the object is put in the centre. Those who want to talk have to pick up the object and put it down when they are done. When it's time to close the conversation, the object goes around and each one says their closing thoughts. I've done it several times on the topic “simplicity in this complex world” — recreating one's life amidst consumerism and materialism. It can be fun. I am hoping to bring this to national television in the Philippines — wish me luck!

Baboo Mondonedo is a writer based in Baguio City, Philippines. She is an ecology advocate and is interested in culture, women and peace concerns.

Susanna Mitchell

The Caf Diplos is organised by the Friends of Le Monde Diplomatique (FLMD) at the French Institute in London on selected Saturday mornings from September through to June. It provides a welcome space for spirited debate about contemporary issues and international developments often ignored by the mainstream media.

Open to the public for a small entrance fee, and free to members, these events begin with a talk by an invited expert and end with a facilitated discussion.

The informal setting for these debates,where the audience can enjoy a cup of coffee and a croissant as they settle in, gives the Cafs a flavour all their own, and the high quality of the speakers, and the stimulating range of the subjects they cover are making them increasingly popular with people concerned to question and analyse the assumptions of the current economic and political system.

Last year, the Cafs addressed issues that ranged from the enlargement of the European Union, the problems of the oil economy in the Caucasus, and the current fate of Chechnya to a discussion of the implications of Guantanamo for the future of international law. Next seasons pro-gramme will open with a talk about the Palestine/Israel problem, and includes discussions on Climate Change, the adverse effects of WTO legislation on developing countries, and the future role of the UN.

As usual, the topics encourage a critiques of militarism, neoliberal economics, the asymmetry of north-south relations and the power of finance capital,and provide an intellectual reference point for those interested in social justice and world affairs. A good way to keep in touch with the world, and enjoy a lively and friendly Saturday morning! Susanna Mitchell is an FLMD committee member See

Topics: Activism