Ask Me for a Poem: Using Social Scaffolding to Seek Connection

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What are your strategies for finding connection?

Apparently, we are lonely. People spend an average of two and a half hours a day on social media. Social media can be a powerful, positive connecting force that allows people to connect over common interests. Yet many turn to social media hoping to find genuine connection, yet come away finding their experience reinforces social comparison and anxiety. Ubiquitous smartphones draw our gaze away from the people we pass by daily, at the grocery store, or in the seat next to us on the bus.

I try to look for opportunities to spark connection as I move through the world. Often, this means pausing to ask a stranger in a coffeeshop, or while waiting in line at the post office, How are you doing?, and actually taking the time to listen to the answer. I have also tried to use creative, transparent ways to invite connection through putting out a clear invitation. I like to think of this as “Social Scaffolding.” Bits of structure that offer a place to begin a conversation. Visual invitations that signal an openness to interaction. “Low tech” ways of inviting connection.

In 2015 I started wearing a necklace with a sign inscribed with the words: Ask me for a poem. I carry a sheet of paper with different possible categories– Grief, Joy, Teaching, Nature, Justice. People will approach me and say, “Could I have a poem?” They choose a category that is meaningful to them, then I’ll share a poem that fits with the theme they have requested. Often, this sparks immediate connection– hearing a poem about a theme that is resonant to them in the moment jostles something. Usually, we fall into a conversation, often connected to the theme of the poem they chose and how that is present in one or both of our lives.

At conferences, I’ve handed out stickers that say “Ask Me About” with a space underneath in addition to the usual “Hello My Name Is” nametags. People write what they want to talk about–– a topic of interest, a favorite film, a cause they care about, their love for a certain kind of food. This visual invitations lead to discussions and questions beyond the usual ways of initiating conversation, like Where do you live? What do you do for work? or even How are you?

After enjoying the connections that came from wearing my poem sign, I made buttons that say “Open for Conversation” and started wearing them when I went out to do errands. Often I get quizzical looks. But sometimes, someone stops me to ask, What does your button mean?

I respond, It means I’m open to and interested in having conversations. Is there anything you’d like to share? I will listen. I may offer other openings and invitations, like What’s something you wish others understood about you? What has inspired you recently? Would you be willing to share about a meaningful moment in your life? Is there anything you’re struggling with that you’d like support with? Usually, conversation ensues. Usually, a connection is formed that likely wouldn’t have without an invitation.

While I have sought to initiate connections with strangers since I was a young adult, this approach of using visual invitations is inspired by my partner, who sometimes wears an “Interaction Jacket” covered in altoid boxes painted with the words, Open for Interaction. This is a literal invitation– the boxes open to reveal prompts like “Share about someone who is important to you” or “Give three meaningful compliments.”

The jacket is also a metaphor. Says the wearer of the jacket: Come engage with me, if you want to. I am open to interaction. This puts an invitation out, and passersby can decide whether they would like to engage or not. In this way, these visual invitations can also be a form of navigating social consent. When I wear a button that says “Open for Conversation,” or a sticker that says “Ask Me About Science Education,” I do not approach others and demand they talk to me– I present the invitation and allow others to engage me if they want to.

I leave each one of these spontaneous moments of connections feeling a little less lonely, and feeling a little more seen. While many people may not want to engage or connect with people they don’t know as they go about their day (which is totally fine!) I’ve spoken with many people who would like more meaningful connection in their lives– but don’t always know how to go about finding it. I can think of some common ways people use visual cues to reveal an aspect of their personality– shirts with witty quotes and funny images, sports merchandise, a quote from a favorite artist or musician. These are ways, I think, people say, Here is an important part of who I am. Please see me.

So why not make the invitation all the more clear? I invite you to reflect– what kinds of connection are you looking for? What strategies do you use to find that connection? What would it be like to make a literal sign that invites the kind of connection and conversation you want to have more of? Choosing to put out this kind of invitation is a vulnerable choice to make. And I am aware that this is easier for me to do than many others. My identity as a white, younger, perhaps somewhat “conventionally attractive” woman means I am not perceived as a threat by the dominant culture. I don’t underestimate the impact this has, how this makes it safer for me to offer connection than it does for others. But I hope that there is maybe one invitation for connection you could offer in a way that feels safe for you.

What if we were all a little more open for connection? What if we all connected with each other just a little bit more as we went through the business of our days? What if we all were a little less lonely? If you feel moved to, try looking for ways to invite connection. I don’t doubt that you will make someone else feel less lonely because you did.

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