Gary Rotstein’s The Morning File: Pittsburgh Pout or not, won't you just 'Talk to me'?

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Interesting new strategy they've got in London for overcoming urban loneliness.

Some blokes and blokesses have started the "Talk to me" campaign, as described in a recent Associated Press article. They pass out badges people can wear that say, "Talk to me, I'll talk to you."

That way, if you're standing next to someone in a queue (line) or on a lift (elevator) or waiting for coffee at Starbucks (Starbucks), you don't have to look around awkwardly, pretending not to notice one another. The badge is a sign that it's OK to strike up a conversation about something, anything -- the weather, the Mideast crisis of the day, perhaps the rash that you're itching to show someone.

("Excuse me, sir, but would you take a look at this strange mark on my shoulder? What do you think it is? Have you ever experienced anything like it? No? How about your wife then?")

Perhaps the "Talk to me" campaign discourages idle banter about such personal maladies with strangers. These social instigators aim nonetheless to get some kind of chat started so people feel connected to their community instead of isolated.

"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?" mused David Blackwell, a coordinator of the "Talk to me" project in London.

Reading about the effort makes one ponder how Pittsburgh fits in on the social connectivity scale, in terms of willingness to talk to one another. We're inclined to believe we're fine already, without the need for badges.

In a town of sports nuts, which includes all residents regardless of race, age or gender, there's automatic common ground with strangers, especially when the three major sports teams collectively span all the seasons. It's helpful, however, to know the name of the coaches of the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins, as any random Pittsburgh sports conversation inevitably leads to some allegation of recent idiocy on their part.

The only sports pitfall is the danger of encountering some zealot who cares about one of the minor sports. The whole social conversation equation gets tipped askew when someone in a supermarket line remarks, "Tough loss for the Riverhounds last night, eh?" While it's usually safe to say something like, "Just a couple more goals, and we would had 'em," you don't really want to encourage such a social outlier.

Anyone could get rich, meanwhile, if given $1 every time a Pittsburgher comments to a stranger about the weather. It's always either too hot or cold, too humid or rainy, too snowy or slippery, and everybody from Avalon to Zelienople loves to complain about it.

On the three days a year when the region enjoys the kind of weather a San Diegan might take for granted, there's still need for conversation: "Wow, some beautiful weather today, huh? ... Better enjoy it, since we won't see this again soon, ha ha, ... and while this day in June might be spectacular, man, I hate the winters here, don't you? You don't? What's wrong with you?"

That would be an example of the kind of Pittsburgher who likes to put a negative spin on things, as we are sometimes wont to do. It goes along with that inferiority complex we are also accused of having. On still another negative front, we received an email this week from a reader referring to a facial expression we didn't know Pittsburghers were famous for:

"There is a term used by folks who have lived in other cities in other states to describe the scowl they find on the majority of the populace of this town: The Pittsburgh Pout. Even when a smile is directed toward them, they respond by staring at you as if you are from Mars!"

Zounds. We acknowledge the region's natives have some quirks, but we generally think of ourselves as a friendly bunch, doing all our random acts of kindness and trying to make people feel welcome at the local watering hole and such.

If we're all truly pouting at one another, who's going to want to start a conversation, badge or no badge? There might be worse things than suffering one another in silence, however. A leader of London's "Talk to me" campaign noted: "The only problem we've had so far is that once people start talking, it can be difficult to get them to stop."

Well, nobody wants that, certainly, especially on a hot, sticky day like we're always having. And especially after that last Pirates loss -- can you believe what Hurdle did? And another thing ...


Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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