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I find it interesting how something said in a conversation can just linger in the background, like one of those seeds awaiting the right conditions to grow, and then surprise us with its presence.
On our call last week, the importance of community was a recurring theme. How technology, despite its ability to connect us en masse over great distances, is no substitute for one-to-one and small-group dialogue that has no purpose other than to connect us, acknowledge us and make us feel heard.
For most of our human history, knowledge has been captured and passed on as stories in an oral tradition. One of my favourite books of the last few years is Tyson Junkaporta’s “Sand Talk” on how stories, relationships and memories can be kept alive through generations by symbol, place and story. So when Davina made a passing comment during the conversation that “the printing press freezes our stories”, it planted a seed.
Any story, of course, is different for each person who reads it. Our experiences, aspirations and circumstances lead to different interpretations of the same words on the page. The same is true for anything we reduce to written or graphical form, from emails to abstract art. One representation triggers many different interpretations, but unless those interpretations get to meet each other, they sit there as part of our individual truths until they quickly fade from memory and become part of our psyche.
To be valuable, interpretations need to be exercised in conversation within a community. That way, they can generate agreement, dissension, and development. Different interpretations can give rise to a forest of possibilities.
Conversation is like sourdough; it needs a starter culture to develop. Enabled by those who operate in places where people linger, who gently interrupt the normal routines to uncover shared interests or possibilities. It is the province of pastors, formal and informal. Those who, in previous times, were the hub of the community - the postman, the vicar, the pub, the football and cricket teams. Custodians of festivals that broke the routine of the normal workday.
All very bucolic, maybe, but equally necessary. We are poorer for lack of their modern equivalent, sacrificed as they are by measurement for being inefficient.
Here in Derbyshire, last Sunday was a perfect Autumn day. Gentle morning mists carrying the fragrance of the changing season, developing by mid-morning into perfect weather for being outside, embracing the changes underway, and anticipating welcoming log fires and warm conversation that await in the pub at the end of a good walk. We’re lucky: At the end of the walk, about a mile from home, next to the river, is an old pub we have known and frequented in the over thirty years we have been here. It sits next to a first-millennium church, itself on a pilgrimage path. It is a natural meeting place. Like most pubs, it suffered in the pandemic, and now, as it recovers, suffers from staff shortages.
It has wonderful tenants but is also part of a chain, so despite what it may mean to the community, is reduced to a set of metrics by which it is judged. So, I was saddened, but not entirely surprised, to see this sign at a pub that is otherwise a veritable petrie dish of social connection.
I can only think that someone a long way from the pub has determined that the best way to deal with a shortage of staff is, rather than address the core issue, to find a way to do without them.
The sector is called hospitality for a reason. The clue is in the name:
Hospitality (n).late 14c., "act of being hospitable," from Old French ospitalité "hospitality; hospital," from Latin hospitalitem (nominative hospitalitas) "friendliness to guests”.
There is something dystopian about the prospect of an atomised set of individuals sitting in close proximity in a place built for conviviality, ordering on their phones and queuing silently for boxes of cutlery.
There is a need, I think, to look at people from a “via negativa” perspective, and the things that they do that are neither process nor measurable. Remembering names, smiling, noticing, introducing and connecting for no other reason than the joy of it. The stuff of “mine host”. Informal, non-denominational conversation starters and catalysts. The social equivalent of the sourdough I mentioned earlier.
For this, we need our networks to be healthy and vibrant. Not the shallow, attention-seeking of social media, but rather something smaller, more tightly woven, where the bandwidth is greater and enabled by trust, mutual concern, shared values and a shared sense of purpose.
Every time we use an app or a process to bypass a potential human interaction, we are impoverishing ourselves and denying possibilities for serendipity and insight. Human vibrancy is what drives the growth that matters; for everything else, there is data,
It’s not just those picturesque fisherfolk on holiday beaches who need to spend time mending their nets.
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