'Cross Country Conversation'

The Saint sat down with Chris Andrews to learn about his Let’s Talk project, which celebrates the power of face-to-face conversations.

His starting sentence: “When I graduate I’m not going to be getting a job or going to grad school, I’m going to be running across the United States on foot” is not something you hear every day.

Chris Andrews’s plans for after graduation are as ambitious as they are unconventional. This August, Mr Andrews will travel to Virginia Beach. Once there, he will embark on a 3,200-mile journey across America, reaching San Diego eight to nine months later. Along the way, he aims to “spark a national conversation about conversation”. By talking to as many people as possible, Mr Andrews strives to emphasise the benefits and joys of face-to-face conversations and ultimately to inspire people to think again about how they communicate.

Mr Andrews explained that the idea first stemmed from his “realisation that the way we communicate as humans now has changed more in the last twenty years than any time ever before.” He added that while the digital age has certainly brought great advances in communication, he “started to ask the question of what happens when we start to move face-to-face conversation to the backburner.”

Recent studies about the effect of digital communication on development of social skills make for worrying reading. In an article for The New York Times, Sherry Turkle cites a startling finding by a team at the University of Michigan that there has been a 40 per cent decline in empathy among college students. This decline, the bulk of which has occurred since 2000, seems to have accompanied the rise in usage of digital communication.

Mr Andrews concurs. Although he remains uncertain about the extent to which our social skills have been impacted, he says: “I am concerned that there is some lack of empathy when we’re relying on digital communication and moving away from face-to- face conversation.” In particular, Mr Andrews worries about the unconscious effect of taking “away the human on the other side… We start to detach ourselves from the consequences of what we’re doing and what we’re saying.”

However, instead of concluding that we should all throw our phones into the sea, Mr Andrews argues that acknowledging the benefits of face-to-face conversation need not mean giving up our use of social media. “It’s not at all that I condemn digital communication,” he said. “I am a proud user of social media. I am fully behind digital communication. It’s about finding that balance and about highlighting the power of face- to-face conversation today. I don’t want this trip to be about bashing technology. I more want to celebrate the incredible thing that is face-to-face conversation.”

What are the benefits of face-to-face conversations? Mr Andrews said: “If you think about how messages are communicated when you are face to face with someone, it’s about the body language. It’s about the facial expressions.” Mr Andrews added that businesses are coming to realise the effectiveness of face-to-face communication, which allows sales people to build a personal connection with customers.

The Let’s Talk project’s use of social media to spread its message has caused many to accuse Mr Andrews of hypocrisy. Mr Andrews admits that it is a “paradox” but adds: “We’re not condemning technology. It’s more about using it in the right way and… offering something that was produced by face-to-face conversations.” At the very least, Mr Andrews has got people talking.

Another common response to Mr Andrews’s project is disbelief. He admitted: “I don’t think I’ve met a single person who thinks we can do it.” The scale of the journey might well seem unimaginable, even when sensibly divided into a 15-mile-a-day target. However, the ambition of the Let’s Talk project extends beyond the length of the trek. Mr Andrews said the Let’s Talk project is also motivated by the desire to create “a portrait of America with thousands of face-to-face interactions… We’re going to be telling the untold stories of America and documenting the human condition of America right now.” Although Mr Andrews has intentionally left many of the details of the trip undecided until he officially sets out, he has ambitions of trying to record some of the conversations or even publishing a book at the end of their journey.

The combination of running and conversation may not seem immediately obvious to anyone whose memories of cross-country include more wheezing than chit-chat. However, Mr Andrews explained that the idea to run across the USA “came along because we wanted to return to the most basic form of transportation paired with the most basic form of communication.”

Mr Andrews pointed out that the decision to run also makes sense from a practical perspective. It is much more difficult to pull over a vehicle to talk to someone if they were to have chosen to cycle or drive across America. Instead, Mr Andrews will be pushing along a cart with their tent, sleeping bag and water.

Mr Andrews had only one worry about these carts. He tells the story of another runner who did a similar trek and found that people kept mistakenly assuming that the cart contained a baby, resulting in many judgmental looks for this inhumane treatment of the imaginary baby. Mr Andrews adds that he thinks he “might have to put a sign on our cart that we don’t have a baby inside.”

The Let’s Talk project aims to get as many people involved as possible by encouraging people to join Mr Andrews on his run. This goal encompasses both friends travelling to support and join him and strangers who he meets on his epic journey. On the project’s website, LetsTalkUSA.com, Mr Andrews states that whether you join him for a matter of minutes or days the project is open to anyone who is interested in sharing the experience. Another way he hopes to involve others is to contact local schools and invite running clubs, students and teachers to run with him. It is important to Mr Andrews that the project reaches out to “young kids today as it can highlight how crucial a skill” face-to-face communication is. Their generation is perhaps the one most dependent on technology and least familiar with good old chatting.

In preparation for the trek,  Mr Andrews has been busy preparing himself for the physical challenges and recently he spent a couple weeks walking over a 100 miles of the West Highland Way. Mr Andrews said that his training has made him more excited for the project to begin as “even just out there for a couple weeks I was feeling so clear.” He posed a rhetorical question: “You know how it is when you get out there for a little while?” Most of us have probably forgotten. Or have never known at all.

At the end of the month, Mr Andrews will be participating in TEDx St Andrews. In his talk, Mr Andrews plans to delve into “the effects of talking to someone face-to-face, on empathy, on patience” as well as outlining the run itself.

At its heart, Mr Andrews claims the message of Let’s Talk is simple. “I want to promise everyone that going out there and speaking to someone has incredible dividends in the way you feel, in the way that you understand yourself and others,” he said.