The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s not quite free therapy. But if you need someone to talk to, these strangers will listen.

Volunteers, from left, Nicole Kwan and Rita Goodroe, and therapist Esther Boykin interact with passersby as Sidewalk Talk DC, a free listening project and community service, sets up in the Mosaic district on May, 27, 2016, in Fairfax, Va. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Rita Goodroe smiled warmly at the passersby, offering them a seat in the empty chair in front of her. Most averted their eyes, stared down at their phones, quickened their pace, or even turned to change directions. The few who stopped to inquire why Goodroe was sitting on a chair on a shopping center sidewalk inviting strangers to join her, politely declined her offer.

The reluctance of people to engage with Goodroe on this warm, bright Friday evening before the long holiday weekend was an apt metaphor for the whole social exercise.

Goodroe, a business coach for women, was one of about 10 volunteers who set up a Sidewalk Talk in the open-air Mosaic District shopping area in Fairfax. The goal was to provide people the increasingly rare opportunity to take a brief break from their routine to engage with another person. There was no agenda. No one was selling anything, or taking down emails or conducting research. The volunteers were simply there to listen to anything anyone wanted to say.

“You can tell from people walking by that they are uncomfortable,” Goodroe, 40, said, as another couple offered a half smile before hurrying away. “But when people are curious enough to find out what it is, they are like, ‘You’re right, people don’t listen to each other’.”

The idea for the Sidewalk Talk project was conceived in San Francisco by two therapists, Traci Ruble and Lily Sloane. Ruble saw it as a way to encourage human connection, and Sloane imagined it as a way to destigmatize therapy.

Ruble said she long fantasized about putting her therapist’s chair outside and inviting people to sit down for a free session. When she shared her “crazy idea” with other therapists, many said they’d often had a similar thought.

“I have a fundamental belief that we are all responsible for each other’s mental health,” Ruble said. “But this is not therapy on the streets; this is taking one of its biggest tools and bringing it out to the masses. I’m trying to keep the message simple: It’s about listening and belonging. I’m talking about what makes us healthy, and relationships make us healthy.”

Mounds of academic and scientific research have confirmed that human connection is a fundamental need. A UCLA neuroscientist went so far as to say it was as basic as food, water and shelter in his book, “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.”

Since Ruble and her volunteers fanned out across San Francisco last year, she has turned her social experiment into a nonprofit, and the idea has spread to cities across the country, including the D.C. area. In Washington, there have been events downtown and in the surrounding suburbs. At each location, most people have been skeptical to accept the offer to talk openly with a stranger.

It’s these random encounters that have been lost in the age of smartphones, where people walk through life with their heads down, drowning out the world with their earphones. People don’t typically strike up a conversation on an airplane, or on a subway or in an elevator. Even dating is done through phone apps, pretty much eliminating the opportunity for those once-anticipated meet cutes.

But Esther Boykin, a Virginia-based therapist who brought Sidewalk Talk to Washington this spring, said it’s more complicated than just how technology has changed our interactions. Especially in a high-pressure, career-focused environment such as D.C., people tend to be stressed and distracted, and so are far less likely to be chatty waiting in line for their morning latte.

“For me, what it really highlights is that regardless of what we in this area prioritize or value about career or ambition, we still all long for that sense of human connection. We don’t pay attention to how disconnected we are,” Boykin said. “We love social media because it allows us to talk to people without having to leave our house or face our own humanity or vulnerability with other people.”

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Over the two hours that Boykin’s group sat outside the CustomInk shop, which had screenprinted their “You Talk, We Listen” T-shirts, just three people sat down, and one was a woman who had previously heard about it and actually signed up to be a volunteer listener in Maryland. So for only two was it a completely spontaneous experience.

One woman, who declined to give her name, sat down with Goodroe. Goodroe prompted her with a question about her weekend plans. The woman was trying to keep busy because she’d just broken up with her boyfriend, she revealed. She initially leaned back in her chair, keeping noticeable distance between herself and Goodroe. But as she continued talking, she started to lean forward. She suggested that there should be a service where people come to the home of the recently brokenhearted and offer to cook them a meal or do their laundry. Goodroe nodded in agreement.

When she left, she thanked Goodroe for the chat.

The other woman who sat down did so under the auspices of wanting to inquire about the project. But before long she was offering her take on the importance of therapy and yoga, and finding space for self-reflection. Mai Nguyen, 34, an IT contractor who works part-time at the front desk of a yoga studio, said she sat down because, “Why not?”

“I assumed it was related to mental health, and that’s so important,” she said. “It’s kind of nice — we don’t connect with people anymore.”

Because it’s not therapy, per se, Boykin said it’s also been a good exercise for her to practice listening without trying to fix a problem or give advice. It’s about knowing how to stay silent to give space for someone else to share, she said.

“It’s talking and sharing in an authentic way,” she said. “We ask a hundred people a day, ‘How are you?’ but we don’t really stop to listen.”

In San Francisco, SideWalk Talk has become a staple in the community. It has listening events monthly in the same locations, and people now know who the volunteers are and what they’re offering. Boykin hopes the same can be done in D.C. if they just stick with it. Ultimately, she said, it should be an outlet where people know they can come to vent, to gab or even gush.

Ruble said that a few weeks ago a man just wanted to talk about how in love he was. Another person told her afterward that just talking for a few minutes made them “feel cared about, that they mattered.”

That’s the mission in a nutshell, she said: “To feel felt by another person.”

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