Gorillas and Tic-Tac-Toe

Sunday was a beautiful day to enjoy the zoo and talk to strangers, so our team went forth with great gusto. Alex came armed with sidewalk chalk and a game plan, and Julie brought a rather large stuffed gorilla. My contribution: a few half-baked ideas and my very best teacher-voice.

Talking to strangers proved to be an easy task. Several people spoke to us as we carried our gorilla through the zoo: “ooh, look at that, sweetie!” and “oh my gosh! I thought it was real!” I don’t think any of us would say that talking to strangers is our favorite activity, but we were all fairly comfortable starting conversations. Julie and I spoke to kids about our gorilla and to parents about their kids while Alex got into her role as host of the tic-tac-toe game show. (I also complimented one woman on her “books and cats are all you need” t-shirt — hey, those are words to live by.)

If I learned anything from these experiences, it was that talking to strangers isn’t actually a big deal — most people are willing to talk back, although everybody has a different threshold for continuing the conversation. Quieting the voice in my head that says “I’m gonna seem so weird” is definitely the hardest part of striking up a conversation.

The gorilla was a wonderful social object. After all, if you’re carrying around a giant gorilla past the age of 10, you’re already weird, so you’ve got nothing to lose. Like Shin Yu, Kylie, and Nicole, we found that a large stuffed animal was an instant interaction-starter. Kids wanted to hug it, people took pictures with it, and grown-ups tried to put it back where their kids found it. I’m not sure if the gorilla got strangers to talk to each other, but it definitely got family groups talking!

Stuffed animals are great because they’re inherently engaging, and larger-than-average ones manage to be simultaneously attention-grabbing yet very familiar. Those seem like three useful criteria for a successful social object: it should attract notice, be immediately appealing, and be non-threatening. The tweenbots Nina bookmarked the other day definitely satisfy these criteria, and although the website documents people’s interactions with the bots rather than with other people, I’d be willing to bet that they inspired a least a few conversations between strangers.

As we discovered, getting strangers to talk to each other is surprisingly tricky! Alex asked people to play tic-tac-toe, and then directed players to ask strangers to compete with them. However, most people seemed reluctant to recruit a stranger, so either they ended up playing with a member of their family group or Alex had to step in to procure the other player. With a great deal of patience and enthusiasm, Alex did manage to get two girls to speak briefly with each other as they played, but one of our real breakthroughs occurred without our prodding and without a script. As Alex led the game, a group of people gathered to watch. One man asked about what we were doing, so Julie and I answered his questions about the experiment and our museum studies program in general. After our conversation was over, a newcomer to the area asked him why people were playing tic-tac-toe and we overheard his explanation.  

So we have two types of stranger conversations: one where people follow a script imposed upon them, and one where people observe something that drives them to seek information from others.  From the point of view of the museum worker trying to encourage strangers to talk to each other, both have advantages and drawbacks.  The script model provides a fallback and produces a common set of results, but it can be difficult to get people to commit to the script, and without buy-in, it can fall flat.  Creating a situation or experience that generates information-seeking behaviors is a bit of a crapshoot — what if your situation just isn’t that compelling? — but if it works, it can lead to deeper conversations than a script allows for, and it’s obviously more organic.  Is it possible to create a museum experience that facilitates conversations which are both organic and purposeful?  

Get back to me on that.