Back in high school, one of my friends, Will, came into school one day with a funny little cartoon toy attached to his backpack.
I asked him what it was, but instead of telling me a story about how he got the toy or explaining what it meant to him, he said: “It’s a conversation starter.” That wasn’t the answer I’d expected, but it was still correct.
A simple question like “what’s that?” had enabled him to have conversations with people he normally wouldn’t have talked to. It turns out there was indeed a story behind the toy, and he had already told it about five times that morning. This got me thinking about the role of objects in facilitating relationships or initiating conversations.
Take fashion, for example. I always saw fashion as an expression of who you are and what you like, but my conversation with Will showed me that it can also serve another purpose: it’s also a way to relate with others. If you see someone who owns the same scarf, that’s likely to come up in conversation. In the same way, if you see a pair of trousers that look wild and exotic, you’ll probably eventually ask where they came from.
The same thing can be said for TV shows. I’m sure lots of people watch TV because they enjoy it and it’s a stress-relieving activity, but there’s probably also a sizeable population that watches because everyone else watches. Sometimes it’s just easier to make friends if you have something in common, and sometimes it’s nice knowing you can always default to Sherlock if you run out of conversation topics.
Once I realised this role that objects play in relationship-building, I couldn’t help but notice it everywhere. Even more fascinating, though, is how much I was doing this in my own life, without even noticing it. I’d have a collection of cool stickers about causes I was passionate about on my laptop, and every time someone brought up fair trade or social enterprise I’d have an amazing conversation and not realise how it started. Or I’d wear a bandana I bought in Cambodia and end up sharing my travel experiences with a new friend.
Just like Will, at the end of the day, the real value of these objects to me don’t come from the objects themselves, but from the people I meet and the interactions I have because of them.
So if you’re reading this and wondering how you’ll ever muster up the courage to talk to that cute boy or girl at school, maybe take a quirky cartoon toy with you and they’ll ask you where you got it.
Or, just talk to her.