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Lonely Londoners looking to open up to strangers

Published: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 10:53 a.m. CDT

LONDON (AP) — It’s a typical urban routine: Sit on the subway, headphones in, fiddling with the smartphone to avoid eye contact with fellow passengers.

Now a new campaign called “Talk to me” wants to break that habit and change London’s image as one of the loneliest places in Britain.

“Talking to strangers is a social taboo,” said David Blackwell, one of the project’s coordinators. “It’s something we’re inordinately afraid of. Can you imagine how different a city would be if you could just open up to other people with no expectation that a stranger must want something from you?”

Blackwell and other volunteers are handing out badges with the message “Talk to me, I’ll talk to you.” It’s an invitation to strike up a conversation with the wearer, anywhere — whether it’s on the commute or waiting in line for coffee.

The crowd-funded project is motivated in part by a recent Sheffield University survey indicating that 30 percent of people in the British capital feel isolated and uninvolved in their community, with an impact on their emotional and physical wellbeing.

Those who are tongue-tied can use Talk to me flashcards as icebreakers: Suggested topics of conversation range from “What do you think defines a Londoner?” to “Should you feel guilty when you spend lots of money on yourself?”

In August the charity is organizing the first official “Talk to Me Day” with flash mobs, social events and a picnic designed to break the silence and get Londoners chatting.

So far the initiative has attracted 8,000 pounds ($13,600 dollars) in funding through the online fundraising platform Kickstarter.

Organizers say they have already been contacted by people in Paris, Berlin, Seoul and some U.S. cities who would like to start similar projects.

“The only problem we’ve had so far is that once people start talking, it can be difficult to get them to stop,” Akhurst said.

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