I was walking back down the hill to our home in Hawaii after running, when a new neighbor smiled and said hello from her lanai just behind her house. She held a bunch of bananas and a shrink-wrapped package of macadamia nuts, gifts to a new neighbor. Flora and her husband have a family-run coffee and mac nut farm. We exchanged small talk for a few minutes to get acquainted. We were “talking story,” a Hawaiian reference to chatting and telling personal stories that reveal much about who we are, what we like, and how we live. Storytelling reflects and reveals our values, our hopes, our disappointments and our way of thinking.
Talking story is a time-honored tradition here. I feel very much at home with the storytellers. As a young boy, I would be out with my father, a salesman, and would tug on his pants leg to go home as he chatted with farmers, neighbors, customers and anyone he met. I grew to appreciate his stories, some historical, some autobiographical, many humorous. The stories were well known in the family. I inherited them and have continued the tradition of passing them along. They express some of my beliefs and experiences with life or they just seem funny and a way to remember dad. When my son was very young he endured my long visits with friends and strangers, sharing stories, getting acquainted, talking story.
I love that the culture here has a name for this activity, but the activity itself is not unique to Hawaii. The small town where I was raised had several local cafes, which had daily coffee drinkers who gathered to “talk story,” known as the third place by city planners. These homes away from home included “regulars” and their friends or drop-ins, someone new to town or returning home for a visit. These third places are important in communities because they allow people to hang out, catch up with friends, and take time to understand each other better.
As a nature center director, I supervised building a restaurant next to the Arkansas River in Pueblo, Colorado. The center had been a popular daily stop for joggers, dog walkers, fishers, birdwatchers and nature lovers. A café added food, beverages and great places to sit with friends, un-hassled. It encouraged people to meet for lunch, stop by for a drink, hold a birthday party or even a wedding or funeral. I enjoyed talking story with our “regulars” each day. The restaurant added to our attraction power for people as a third place, not work, not home. We encouraged staff to take the time to talk story with visitors. It became an important part of the workday, getting to know people well, listening to their stories.
Think about how you might encourage opportunities for storytelling beyond the traditional exhibit space or program areas. That café, coffee shop, tearoom or picnic area that serves as a “third place” at your facility may become “the” place for talking story at your site and as such, an important place for creating a sense of community.
– Tim Merriman