Take a seat; make a friend—what an elegantly simple, yet charming, concept.
I was both charmed and inspired after watching an online video entitled, “Take a Seat, Make a Friend.” Essentially, an organization called SoulPancake “hit the streets” to see what happens when two strangers take a seat in a ball pit, and talk about life’s big questions. As an Ask Big Questions fellow, I was predictably enthusiastic about the conversation content—but I knew that something even bigger than “big questions” was at work.
The level of intimacy achieved in the brief conversations between strangers in this four minute and fifty-three second video struck a chord with me, illuminating the importance of the quality of our social interactions over their quantity, of smart talk over small talk.
The quantity of brief, meaningless social interactions that I have engaged in on my campus over the past three years seems infinite. A mid-size university, the University of Guelph has approximately 17,436 undergraduate students as well as 2,131 graduate students. I have passed by thousands of students on my way to lectures, stood beside hundreds of students at bus stops, and shared an awkward elevator moment with just as many.
I have learned that when you ask each of these thousands of students how they are, they will tell you that they are “Good,” and that yes, they each have noticed the weather today. Unfortunately, I haven’t learned anything meaningful about my fellow students, save a handful of close friends and last year’s Ask Big Questions conversation participants. Over the past three years on my campus, my lifetime small talk quota has definitely been filled. I decided that I was ready for some smart talk on my campus.
That evening, over the phone, I described my vision to my parents –who attended the University of Guelph from 1985-1991.
“Close your eyes, and imagine this: campus is crawling with students, but instead of looking down at their cell phones, they are looking up at each other; in class, they are smiling at each other, instead of down at their laps; outside, the buzz of campus construction competes with the buzz of conversation. And this isn't small talk—it’s smart talk. Students are so engaged that they decide to put their phones away and sit down together. Circles of students form on Johnston Green—imagine circles of students everywhere, interacting, relating, engaging—talking! How cool would that be?”
My parents looked at me like I was speaking in a foreign tongue, replying, “Imagine that? We remember that.”
Slightly perturbed that I wasn't born a few generations earlier, and slightly embarrassed for momentarily thinking I may be a great visionary, I too decided to “hit the streets” to see what happens when two strangers take a seat in a ball pit and talk about life’s big questions with Ask Big Questions Guelph. On Orientation Week, Ask Big Questions Guelph set up a ball pit, and invited first year students (bribed with free donuts and the promise of new friendships) to take a seat, have a face-to-face conversation, and make a friend. The catch was, they couldn't leave the ball pit until they found something that they had in common. The twist was: no one wanted to get out!
Watching the transformation that occurred in a simple, freestanding pit of colourful plastic balls was truly phenomenal. These conversations weren't just connecting people—they were changing people. What began as a pair of apprehensive strangers awkwardly lowering themselves into a ball pit in the middle of campus transformed into dozens of students forming conversation circles in and around the overflowing ball pit all afternoon, rich with fervent hand gestures, engaged body language, and vibrant facial expressions. In addition to literally overflowing with balls, the ballpit was bursting with passionate conversations, engaged students, laughter, appreciation, and understanding.
As Ask Big Questions recognizes, achieving understanding is at the heart of meaningful conversation. It is only when we view our fellow students through a lens of understanding, regardless of our religious traditions, cultural heritage, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and beliefs, that we can truly see one another. When we can truly see one another, we seem to like what we see. Perhaps this is why later that week, I saw not one, but two groups of students whom had met in our ball pit walking into a free lecture together.
The success of this event inspired Ask Big Questions Guelph to host monthly, drop-in, public conversations, in order to facilitate a safe, positive space for meaningful connections to continue to be made amongst students on our campus.
Together, through these conversations, we can understand each other, understand ourselves, and make the world a better place. We just need to start talking.
Jasmin Dalton is a fourth year Psychology student at the University of Guelph, where she works with Residence Life. She loves the great outdoors, and great big ideas.
Originally published on the Ask Big Questions blog.