Talking with Strangers

Communication Toolkit for Coffee Shops in a Divided Nation


Talking with Strangers is a free toolkit to equip coffeeshops with simple, customisable design interventions to encourage conversation amongst their patrons.

We see the toolkit as a way to help re-build empathy and trust in a divided society.

My design partner, Andrew Schlesinger and I designed the Talking with Strangers toolkit with the aim of re-building empathy, trust and healing the divide in the United States bought to light after the recent election. Talking with Strangers is free - designed to be distributed over the web with a Creative Commons attribution license. The kit offers four different ways to encourage thought-provoking conversation - laddering up through varying degrees of investment and engagement. A generic design acts as the basis to the templates however each intervention is designed to be easily customised by the establishment to match their brand.


Prior to conducting field research and prototyping, we researched the academic field of moral psychology to better understand the fundamental differences between liberal and conservatives. The most influential finding for us was thought-leader Jonathan Haidt's assertion that “you can be disgusted by a group of people, but then you meet a particular person and you genuinely discover that they’re lovely.” This insight served the backbone for Talking with Strangers, since its ultimate goal is to build empathy between people who disagree.

We were interested in exploring food as a conversational medicine and asked ourselves, how might we heal the empathetic divide from divisive politics in the United States through food and drink? The project took us across the New York to cafes, restaurants and bars. Meeting and talking with people we came to realise that people just aren’t talking with each other. The majority of people we talked to felt like they were stuck in a political bubble, talking to ‘the other side’ was something that needed to happen.

The Talking with Strangers toolkit empowers proprietors to turn their 'coffee shop' into a 'coffee house’. 

We were inspired by the ‘coffee house’ from the Age of Enlightenment. The coffee house was the birthplace of public opinion - a place where individuals could get together, share thoughts, and develop progressive ideas. Today there is an urgent need for this, and we see the toolkit as a way to help re-build empathy and trust in a divided society. 

Discussing the toolkit with patrons and baristas of various coffee shops, there was overwhelming encouragement for the project. Barista Alexandra M. remarked, “We always think about what is different between me and you—never what is the same.” Andrew and I are currently refining and testing the toolkit to distribute online early 2017.


Talking with Strangers - Communication Toolkit For Coffee Shops
Collaborators: Andrew Schlesinger
Project: School of Visual Arts (2 months)