Conversation for a change

By Pascale Palmer
May 13, 2011

I’ve overheard some interesting conversations this week while travelling on public transport. As any Londoner knows, the unwritten rule is that you can be chatty on the buses, but it’s really not done to talk too much on the Tube. So I’ll start with a beautiful conversation from a ride on that previously mentioned ( rammed bus to Deptford Bridge.

It went like this:

Woman 1: “I’ve had a really bad day but what I say is – thank the Lord I’m not in Japan. Whenever you are thinking you’re having a bad day you should think – I could have been in that tsunami and I’m not, I’m just having a bad day."

Woman 2: “You’re right, it’s all about attitude: you shouldn’t be down on yourself and your day. I was thinking about going on an enlightenment course so I can be more positive...”

Woman 1: “What for? You can do it on your own – you just have to be positive, think positive, say positive things all the time and especially about other people.”

Woman 2: “You’re right I think. Smiling makes you feel happy even if you’re unhappy.”

Woman 1: “So you know Janine has got a new weave? And that weave is a bad weave isn’t it? But when you see such a bad thing you don’t say, ‘Janine what have you done to your hair?’ What you say is – ‘Janine that is a good big weave and I love it and you look good’. And then Janine feels good and you feel good for making her feel good and that is enlightenment. And all the time you have to keep thinking, thank the Lord I’m not in Japan.”

And here is a different take on life from the Circle Line:

Man 1: “There’s just no point in any of it. You spend all your time collecting newspapers and bottles and stuff, washing them and putting them in the right bags and putting them outside on the right day and they pretend that recycling is saving the whole world, but they’re sticking it in the landfill along with everything else.”

Man 2: “Mmmm and they’re taxing us on all this, taking money from us for recycling but they just drive it to the dump and leave it there. It’s a myth – recycling - a bloody myth.”

Man 1: “But what really gets me is my wife thinks she’s doing something when she stops me just throwing it all in together even when I tell her it’s all going to the same landfill, so I have to do it else she’s on me.”

Man 2: “It’s always the same, the government just takes and takes and never tells us anything the way it is.”

Although these two snippets of chats have very different tones and cover very different ideas, I actually felt rather heartened by both from an international development communications context.

From the women on the bus I realised that the faith concept of ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ still holds true and is still a reason people respond to the plight of others. It can be extended to an idea of solidarity, the ability of people to relate immediately to others and put themselves in their shoes. So much of what aid agencies try to communicate is about exactly that – bringing the distant closer, making the seemingly geographically, culturally and economically other our own concern.

And our Circle Line conversation - which I have to take issue with over some of the facts: recycling isn’t a myth and, as part of the waste management sector, (which admittedly has its faults) feeds a commodities market desperate to reclaim resources and cash from pre-used materials – is perhaps more astounding. I would never have expected any two people in their spare time to be discussing “landfill” and in an indirect way airing recycling’s link to climate change or “saving the world”. To be honest, I am not even that disappointed by their personal take on it all because at least they are engaging with the issue. And more than anything I am hugely encouraged by the idea that Man 1’s wife is lobbying for action on recycling in a deeply powerful conjugal way.

Conversations are potent things – they let us air our thoughts and see how others react; they let us listen, learn, persuade and be persuaded. And most of all they help us understand others and ourselves, and offer the motivation for action.

On 9 June 2011 thousands of people from all over the country are going to sit down in Westminster Central Hall and have conversations with their local MPs about ways to make better the lives of people they don’t personally know, in countries they may never visit.

Every single conversation that takes place that day has the potential to bring about change, to cause the spark that builds into a fire of action that moves the poorest in developing countries away from the red lines of poverty. Why don’t you join us - it could be one of the most important conversations any of us ever has.


© Pascale Palmer is Senior Media Officer (Policy & Campaigns) for CAFOD.

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