Phoebe Waller-Bridge had it right with “chatty Wednesdays” – now tackling the UK’s loneliness epidemic in a café near you
It would be easy to assume that Phoebe Waller-Bridge, with her instinct for the zeitgeist, had something to do with the recent proliferation of “Chatty Cafés” that are springing up all over the country.
Fleabag – the eponymous protagonist of Waller-Bridge’s hit comedy drama – came up with the idea of “Chatty Wednesdays” to resuscitate her ailing guinea pig-themed café. “Loneliness pays,” she shrugs, darkly, when her plan proves a success.
But the real social experiment, called the Chatty Café Scheme, predates Fleabag. It is the brainchild of 35-year-old Alex Hoskyn, who launched it in 2017 in response to her feelings of loneliness after the birth of her son.
“I felt invisible… desperate for my husband to get home every day so I’d have someone to talk to,” Hoskyn told me. “I did try mother-and-baby groups but found I didn’t always want to be with a load of other new mums.”
Her concept was simple: to create a welcoming environment in cafés with a “Chatter and Natter” table – not necessarily as a way of making friends, but just to inspire “good old-fashioned human interaction”. Anyone can join one of these tables, whether alone or in the company of a friend, a child, a grandparent or carer.
An average of 25 cafés have joined each month and last month saw the biggest influx yet, with more than 60 signing on (look out for a blue sticker in the window to spot them).
The scheme is also linked to pubs, libraries, gyms and other community spaces. You can visit them any time, but now, inspired by Waller-Bridge, Hoskyn is also introducing nationwide Chatty Wednesdays, which will take place between 9:30am-11:30am at participating venues.
The idea piqued my interest immediately: I know from personal experience that when I’m feeling low or emotionally adrift, I withdraw into my shell and avoid opening up beyond a superficial level. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
According to the charity Mind, feeling lonely in itself isn’t considered to be a mental health problem, but having a mental health problem increases your chance of feeling lonely – and feeling lonely can have a negative effect on your mental health. Sometimes, all it takes is a passing exchange to restore a sense of connectedness.
“When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life – and theirs,” says Kio Stark, author of When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You. In her TED talk, she explores how the act of interacting with people you don’t know not only improves your mood but also boosts confidence and makes you feel human. “And you never know, you may well make a friend in the process,” she notes.
Who wouldn’t want to experience such life-enhancing benefits, in a world where so many of us are slaves to our screens? That’s how I recently found myself at a table labelled “chatty zone” at Georgia’s Kitchen, a café in Hampton Hill, Twickenham.
Promising myself I wouldn’t hide behind my phone screen or a book, I sat down beside a group of strangers. Unfortunately for me, the group I initially sat with knew each other already, and had no idea that theirs was a chatty table. No matter: thanks to the presence of the sign, I was able to point it out to them, introduce myself and get talking.
Not only did I feel brave, I found myself uplifted by their willingness to chat to me (both before and after I let on that I was a journalist). I felt a real sense of achievement from the act of making new, unexpected connections: I met a nutritional therapist, a private GP specialising in personalised lifestyle medicine and a construction worker currently living in Australia, back to visit his family.
Conversation flowed. The nutritional therapist, Sam Varriale, recommended a local yoga studio; the private GP, Dr Shilpa Dave, and I bonded over our mutual appreciation of Dr Rangan Chattergee. Both of their outfits were from Hush at John Lewis in Kingston, I gleaned, and I vowed to check the brand out. Meanwhile, the construction worker – who turned out to be café owner Georgia Ballantine’s brother, Greg – told me all about the requirements for Australian visas.
Next I searched for chatty cafés near my mum’s home in West Sussex, and stumbled across Fitzcane’s in Midhurst. At 68, mum recently moved to a nearby village. While resources like Meetup (meetup.com) and U3A – the University of the Third Age – have already helped her to meet people with similar interests, I convinced her to come to a chatty café with me, where we found ourselves talking to a regular visitor about how it became a lifeline for her after her husband died.
We also found out more about MADHurst, a forthcoming arts and drama festival in the town, from another coffee drinker. The positive mood around the table at Fitzcane’s was palpable.“People are realising that we need more connections to bind the community together,” says Caroline Cheshire, who introduced the scheme at Fitzcane’s. There is no doubt she is right.
Many locals in Midhurst are retired or widowed, and according to a 2013 study by the Office for National Statistics, more than 50 per cent of those adults aged 52 or older who are either widowed, divorced or separated experience loneliness. So the scheme meets a very real need.
Loneliness, it seems, is an epidemic. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, one in five people in the UK, are always or often lonely.
Loneliness is not necessarily about being alone: rather, it is the subjective sense of lacking affection, social interaction or closeness with others; a feeling of disconnectedness – which is why it can be experienced in a crowded room or a busy restaurant, in the company of young children or even your partner.
As well as taking an emotional toll, loneliness affects our physical health, too. One significant report has shown that loneliness can increase the risk of early death by 26 per cent, and that as a risk factor for mortality it is worse for us than obesity and comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
It is not just those experiencing loneliness who will benefit from the scheme. However small the interaction, a brief connection makes a real difference to your day, says Hoskyn, the scheme founder.
Perhaps that’s the reason the Chatty Café Scheme is proving so successful, with 1,000 establishments now taking part. Cafés around the country, from the National Trust’s Fell Foot Boathouse café in the Lake District to branches of Costa Coffee, are on board. Hoskyn hopes not only to continue rolling it out, but for chattiness to become “entrenched” in UK café culture.
My own experiences have ignited an appreciation for the simple act of having a chat, so if you can bring yourself to, I’d urge you to give it a try. Mine’s a cappuccino.
Visit thechattycafescheme.co.uk to find a location near you