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“If you could go back and rewatch one scene in your life without changing it what would it be?
“What moment would you have treasured more had you known it was going to be the last time?
“What advice would you give your younger self?”
These sound like the types of questions you’d ask to keep conversation going on a long road trip or address to your mother when you finally try to get to know your parents “as people.” Either way the answers are likely to be revealing.
Now imagine you’re at a McPherson Square coffee shop in the late afternoon using these questions as prompts to spill your guts to strangers whose last names you don’t know and whose first names you already forgot. The inquiries appear on cards used to guide conversation for two hours.
That’s how sessions work at Hello Neighbor—an experience created by D.C. resident Patrick Xie to help people who’ve never met forge genuine connections through conversation that’s more meaningful than small talk made at happy hours.
Hello Neighbor is part of a growing collection of communal meals and similar activities designed to pull Washingtonians away from sharing takes on the internet to expand their circle of friends. Restaurants and cafes are the ideal setting for these social experiments because simple acts like passing plates and refilling wine glasses feel familiar.
Over the course of a weekend, I tried three of these experiences, and entered my gauntlet of extroversion with skepticism. Would people consider talking to folks with opposing views during a politically fraught time? Would the conversation go deeper than the weather or how the food tastes? What if I nervously fill a pregnant pause with a taboo question? Will I leave with new Facebook friends to keep in touch with?
The structure of Hello Neighbor made it the most emotionally stimulating experience. Upon arriving at Dua Coffee, 15 total attendees purchased an Indonesian coffee drink and gathered to await instructions from Xie. He welcomed everyone and split us into groups of three or four, then gave us the deck of question cards.
At my table, the four of us covered the pros and cons of serial monogamy, the perspective gained from losing a loved one, an ongoing legal battle with a negligent landlord, and how, even if you’ve traveled the world, the most meaningful trip you took might be one spent in a van, criss-crossing America with your family.
Xie says he crowdsources most of the questions from the internet or past attendees. While probing, they seem to stick to the common themes of family and travel. “I don’t want us to be talking about work,” Xie says. “I find people talk about work as a proxy for filling up time in conversation. Life stories are more resonant.”
My group noticed that the prompts share similarities with the “36 Questions That Lead to Love,” which the New York Times published based on a psychology study. “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure,” write the authors of the study, which examines whether answering a series of questions can foster rapid intimacy.
Xie told attendees he founded Hello Neighbor in reaction to his isolating experience moving to D.C. “I was going to be super proactive and go to all these events and classes and I was going to meet people and make all the best friends of my life,” he says. “After years of doing things almost every single day, I ended up meeting very few people.”
Hello Neighbor tends to attract people who just arrived in the District, like Brendan. “My goal was limited—if I meet one person who’s cool, that’s more than I know now,” he says. He’s attended two sessions. “There’s been two people that I’ve exchanged numbers with and might grab coffee with. They’re leads, I suppose—not to be utilitarian about it. I’ll probably keep going.”
Xie first advertised Hello Neighbor by posting signs at Seylou Bakery in Shaw, which served as the kick-off location a year ago. From there he taught a class about how to move past the small talk at Knowledge Commons DC—a free, crowdsourced school for hobbyists. At the event, 35 people signed up to be on the Hello Neighbor email list and it’s grown by word-of-mouth from there. Most sessions fill up and generate a wait list.
Xie isn’t monetizing his project yet. His mission is simple. “We cross paths with hundreds of people a day, but we never have a reason to say ‘Hi,’” he says. “That’s why a community like this exists, where people from different walks of life come together and meet each other.”
But the circle that Xie gathered at Dua Coffee wasn’t diverse. Most attendees were white Northwest D.C. residents. He hopes to address this by moving the gathering to a different quadrant. He has the luxury of being able to change venues, whereas restaurants that host communal dinners have fixed locations. They too could benefit from taking some initiative to shake up the make up of attendees.
Like Hello Neighbor, Via Umbria recognizes that if you’re going to gather a group of people who don’t know each, it’s helpful to kickstart the occasion with a question. The co-owner of the Georgetown Italian marketplace and eatery, Suzy Menard, asked our table of 12 to introduce ourselves and share where we’ve been in Italy or where we’d like to visit.
Via Umbria has been hosting “Chef’s Table” dinners on Friday and Saturday nights since opening five years ago. Menard says she’s trying to recreate the atmosphere of the garden parties she and her husband, Bill Menard, host at their property in Italy. Connections are inevitable when diners are relaxed knowing the restaurant isn’t looking to turn the table, according to Suzy. “You’re encouraged to enjoy each other’s company.”
The simple question Menard posed did the trick by giving us common ground. In no time we were exchanging travel stories—good and bad—over ribbons of pasta with mushrooms. Conversation flowed freely enough that by the time everyone received a push notification from the Washington Post declaring Bernie Sanders the winner of the Nevada caucuses, we had bonded enough to tip toe into talking politics. “A good icebreaker as much as people hate them, at the end of the day they love them,” Suzy says.
One of Suzy’s favorite outcomes of the chef’s table series is seeing diners of different ages breaking bread. Once she observed septuagenarians invite a couple in their 20s back to their home to unwind. To her knowledge, they accepted. “I think kids in their 20s are rediscovering food as a chance to connect with people,” she says. “They’re having dinner parties, which got skipped for a generation.”
Arlington resident Wallace Martin, who’s in his mid-20s, says it was “cool to see retired people, working people, foodies, and people who were really into the wine more than the food” mingle. The only awkward moment, Martin says, was when diners initially arrived and stood in different corners fidgeting in isolation before we were invited to take our seats. He made a game out of it: “We were trying to figure out who everybody was, why they were there, and what they did.”
The communal dinner known as “Sunday Supper” at America Eats Tavern in Georgetown felt the most like a dinner party. Where Via Umbria served guests individually plated dishes, the barbecue-focused José Andrés restaurant served multiple family-style courses. The dinners kicked off in November and occur monthly.
I was the only attendee without the security blanket of a dining companion. There were sisters, couples, and a mother and daughter. While initially it was difficult to discern where to sit, the group welcomed me into every conversation. It felt like ending up at a friend’s house for Thanksgiving because I couldn’t make it home.
Without a partner there, I could focus solely on new connections and Chef Claudio Foschi’s food. Since you prepay for dinner, drink pairings, tax, and tip and don’t have to order off of a menu, the format adds to feeling you’re over at someone’s house.
The staff carefully watch how the group gels. “We have to adapt to the energy and how they’re communicating,” Foschi says. “Sometimes they need a little more energy and we try to help with that. Or sometimes everyone is so engaged that we take a step back.” Recently they started pouring stronger drinks than just wine—like whiskey and Madeira.
All went well except for the fried mac and cheese ball incident. Somebody (OK, me) took too many balls, leaving other diners having to cut one in half. Because I was sitting between two groups of four, I wasn’t sure which platter to pick at. Each side of the table kept to themselves after that and I felt guilty.
I chatted up a fellow participant named Stephen, who made an astute observation. His partner is an Instagram influencer so he dines out often and has noticed that restaurants have innovated when it comes to the decor, drinks, and the food. The next frontier, he says, is finding ways to alter the dining experience. That’s exactly what these communal feasts do, and it was a welcome change from the status quo of eating out with friends and family. I’d eagerly seek out similar events in the future.
Some of these events carry meaning for the hosts too. On March 31, Primrose in Brookland will host its first communal dinner called “Elevate.” A portion of proceeds will go to an organization that supports mental health. Its genesis is personal for owner Sebastian Zutant, who has Bipolar disorder.
“What we wanted to do is inspire people to sit with each other and develop relationships with their neighbors, and possibly new friends,” he says. “When people are dealing with depression they don’t know how to go out and deal with that kind of thing … Hopefully we get some single diners stuck at a table and then all of the sudden they’re brought into the community.”
He’s envisioning a $75 family-style meal, possibly with big jugs of Chianti guests can pour for each other. “We really want people to be sharing plates with each other,” Zutant says. “Except for dessert. People are weird about dessert. But people will be compelled to speak with each other. Please pass this, please pass that.”
An attendee at the Hello Neighbor session also feels that there’s a potential relationship between these sorts of gatherings and improved mental health. At the end of the two-hour small group session, the full Hello Neighbor cast came back together to share what they thought of the experience. A Logan Circle resident observed: “Anything that promotes self-awareness, empathy, and humility, which are all fundamental for mental health, is really helpful.”