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A recent talk from the Inside Government conference on loneliness. July 2019.

Posted on 20 July 2019

Hello my name is Alex Hoskyn and in April 2017 I started The Chatty Café Scheme which encourages cafes and other venues to designate a Chatter & Natter table. This is where customers can sit if they are happy to talk to other customers. It’s a simple concept and our aims are to reduce loneliness and get people chatting.

I actually thought of the idea a year earlier when my son was a few
months old, I would push the pram around the town centre going into shops and cafes and I was struck you could be out of the house all-day yet have no interaction with another person. I went to mother and baby groups but found I wasn’t always ready at the time they started and I suppose I was looking for more spontaneous opportunities to mix with all types of people when I felt like a bit of company.

I kept thinking that if I felt like this, then surely other people must do as well. It was whilst in a supermarket café that I observed an elderly lady sat on her own looking really fed up; on another table was a man with additional needs with who looked to be his carer, they were looking round the room not making any conversation; and then there was me and my four month old. It struck me how much we could have all benefitted from a bit of company with our coffee. I wasn’t looking for any commitment or new friends, just some basic human interaction and that’s what gave me the idea of the Chatter & Natter table.

It took about a year for me to decide to actually give the idea a go, and I made the decision from day one that I wanted to try and create a buzz spending as little money as possible. I wanted to test the idea and if I kept the costs to a bare minimum then if no-one liked it I wouldn’t have lost anything.

I knew I wanted the tables to be aimed at everyone – young people, older people and everyone in between, people on their own, couples, friends, carers and who they care for, people with babies…anyone. I also knew that I didn’t want to use the word loneliness on any of the publicity. It’s not a negative word but it is a heavy one and I wanted the focus to be on people chatting so the reducing loneliness bit was a subtle by product. I created a facebook and twitter page, googled how to create a website, got some posters designed then set out to ask cafes if they would do it. I had really psyched myself up for a big sales pitch but what I found was that cafes were just up for it and the general public seemed on board.

I see cafes as a perfect venue for social interaction. They are warm on a cold day, you can pretty much rely on them to be open when they say they will and a cup of tea can last a while (and if you’re up north it might even be affordable!) For me, cafes have always been neutral ground where I can walk in on my own feeling comfortable. I couldn’t think of a better space to base Chatter & Natter tables and it is my dream that one day these tables will become a normal part of everyday café culture. You see a Chatter & Natter table, know what it is and sit there if in that moment you are open to conversation with another customer.

At 8.30pm on a Monday evening a few weeks after starting the scheme, I decided to try my luck pitching the idea to some well-known coffee companies. The emails weren’t addressed to individuals (have you tried finding email addresses of important people in big companies??!) I sent them all to the info@ email address and I put for the attention of corporate social responsibility in the subject box. The next day I was astounded to see a proper, personal reply from Jodi who was at the time a Community Engagement Officer at Costa. None of the other chains got back to me, but that was how the relationship with Costa began.

You may have noticed there seems to have been a real emergence of talk about loneliness. It has been recognised as having a detrimental effect on people’s health and there is work going on all over the world to tackle it.

Interestingly I have found that since monetising the scheme and charging £10 per year, per venue, I have seen a surge in venues wanting to join with at least twenty-five new cafes signing up each month. This has increased in 2019 with 64 joining in June alone.

What this tells us is that cafes across the UK want to get involved and when we ask how they have heard about us we hear – shared on facebook, a customer told us about it, saw it in another café, even a rep came into our café! We don’t have reps but what we do have is a network of people who have got in touch to say they love the scheme and want to see it in their local cafes. These ‘ambassadors’ are incredible and you can’t put a value on the power of word of mouth.

The scheme has had an impact in tackling loneliness by recognising the value of cafes and other social spaces as key meeting points for people, they are places of connection and real human interaction. When you unpick the café you see there’s more to them than tea and toast. Let’s think about the resources we have got and make more use of them rather than focus on what we haven’t. The main part of the scheme and the area that everyone wants to focus on is ‘evidence’ does it work? Well what I can say is that the general public have responded incredibly well to it. We get lots of social media messages, posts, emails and phone calls from people who just love it. Of course people cherish their quiet, private time but what we are doing is creating opportunities for conversation – if in that moment you feel like it and you would be amazed at how many people love this.

We are in the midst of an impact report which involves ringing round the venues to ask a series of questions. So far this tells us that when the venue is committed to it, they see less tables with one person, customers chatting away to each other, some need to make the chatter & natter table bigger but importantly they see connections being made.

Sometimes we actually get lovely feedback from people who have observed a table in action: “I was waiting for a friend and was sat next to the chatter & natter table. I was delighted to hear an elderly local talking to a young lady from out of town and a man with a baby. They were all smiling and sat there for a good half hour sharing stories. It was wonderful and made me smile inside out”.

I also love hearing from people who have sat at a table such as Joan and Sarah. Within half an hour Sarah could have told you more about Joan than she could about most of her work colleagues. Impact is a big word and it is THE word. I can’t stand here today and tell you 100% fact – the scheme is reducing loneliness. What I can tell you is that from the simplest of starts it has become a bit of a movement and it has connected some people which in turn has reduced the loneliness they may have been experiencing in that moment.

It is powerful, simple and easy to roll out. I know this can be a national thing but I can’t do it alone. If you have come here today to think about strategies to reduce loneliness, then here I am presenting you with one that is already in action. If you can help make Chatter & Natter tables part of everyday café culture then please do get in touch as I would love to ‘chat’ with you! Sometimes the most powerful relationships come from the simplest of starts.