Our Salon in
When we started the Salon, we didn’t want a book club, per se,
although people’s reading does play a big part in the Salon; or a
party, although the Salon does have parties; or a singles group,
although at least half of those attending come to the Salon to meet
people; or a focus on grass roots activism, party politics or philosophy. We decided that our
Salon, essentially, a discussion group, should be wide open – mostly
about ideas and conversation and communicating – and also about
music, or poetry or art.
I read about salons in the 1990s in the
Utne Reader, but I’m
pretty sure I had heard about salons before that, such as Gertrude
Stein in bohemian
Salons are just slightly subversive. Being an old beatnik, I find that appeals to me.
Currently what we are trying to do is counteract the forces
trying to tear people apart from each other. I can hardly believe we
live in a society once again where assembling together seems
subversive. So many messages in our culture tell us to isolate
Here comes the rant…
We sit at our computers and send emails and walk on our
treadmills watching infomercials on the food channel. We drive our
cars to distant jobs while talking on our cell phones. We live in
red states and blue states, often in neighborhoods where everyone is
the same age and class and color. And as I read in
’07) last week, we go on vacations in oversized vehicles where
everyone has a separate IPOD and cell phone, where even getting
everyone to stop and look out the window at the same time is a major
What happened to conversation? Parents and children,
In the Salon, we practice listening, because everyone has a great
need to be heard. Most of us can rant; many of us can’t listen.
Featured in Utne Reader’s
November/December ’07 issue “The Great Divide: How Do We Talk When
We Disagree?” an interview by Julie Hanus with Stephen Miller, the
Conversation: A History of a Declining Art (Yale
University Press, 2006)
Hanus: In your book, you describe the golden age of conversation, an 18th-century culture of articulate, intelligent exchange that’s a long shot from how we communicate today. In a modern context, what would ideal conversation be like?
Miller: This is somewhat simplistic, but it’s a good start: The best conversations are playful. They go different places; people are throwing out ideas, and no one is pronouncing on things. They should be a bit like a game or a sport. Conversation should be enjoyable in its own right. It’s not something you learn from, like how to get rich or lose weight or whatever. It has intrinsic rewards.
Today we have this terrible war, and people sometimes think that
it’s irresponsible to be playful, that they have to pronounce, they
have to be earnest. Well, you can’t live that way.
H: How can a disagreement be playful?
M: Disagreement has to be good-humored. The alternative is it gets ugly, and that’s unfortunate. Quite often people don’t discuss anything because they’re afraid of offending – or if they do discuss something, they’re screaming.
I have a bunch of friends I’ve met through tennis, and two times
a week, after we play, we sit down and have coffee. We talk about
politics and religion. We have people all over the political
spectrum, and we criticize each other mercilessly. But it’s all in
good spirit; we say things like, “That’s a load of crap, Joe!”
H: Sounds like a pretty unusual group of friends. Why aren’t more people comfortable having a vigorous give-and-take discussion?
M: People feel the need to be authentic, so they approach any kind of interaction with others as “Here’s my opinion, take it or leave it.”
In recent years some people’s political anger has gotten so
strong, fed by a daily dose of their favorite blogs, that they can’t
even entertain other points of view. I have a very conservative
cousin who feeds me stuff he’s reading on the Internet about how the
H: So: I’m talking to somebody with whom I disagree. Where do I start?
M: You do have to decide if the person is reasonable.
If you’re at a dinner party and someone says, “Hey, you know, that Stalin was a great guy,” that’s beyond the pale. If someone says, “God speaks to me,” that’s beyond the pale too. There’s no point. It has to be someone roughly within a large circle. The problem, of course, is that people draw their circles too narrowly.
It isn’t easy to have conversations with people about difficult subjects, especially about politics – that’s the hardest subject. If you don’t fit a certain list or category, or if you say something out of the ordinary, people just shut down.
I live in a 99 percent liberal environment, but I voted for
Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. When I mentioned that at a dinner party
– and these are good friends! – instead of anybody asking me why,
they just changed the subject. You’d think they’d at least be
curious: He looks normal. He talks; he speaks; he reads books; he
goes to the ballet; he likes opera – how could he vote for Ronald
H: Is it enough if I’m playful and curious? Or do I have to give, say, my crazy uncle a heads-up, set up some more formal rules?
M: There have to be ground rules or it’s not going to work. No
personal attacks. In
H: That still seems confrontational to me.
M: In the
It’s so easy not to deal with an actual idea and instead just say, “Oh, you’re repressed, you’re a Marxist, you’re a whatever.” Don’t make it personal. There has to be restraint for conversation to succeed.
H: And what good comes from making the effort?
M: We have a tendency to become intellectually complacent, to get
in a rut, so to speak. You need to meet people who will jar you, who
will question your ideas. It’s difficult, but it’s also very
difficult to change intellectually.
H: Why take time just to vent an opinion?
M: In real conversation, you get a range of opinions, and that’s fun and exciting. Think about spending a good time with a bunch of friends: You don’t remember exactly what you said, but it’s exhilarating.
I have had a big disagreement with my dear neighbor,
over the right size for our discussion group. He is adamant that
eight is the maximum size for a conversation. Of course, he’s right,
as he always is. Eight is maximum for everyone to get a chance to be
fully involved and engaged. But I learned that other salons, like
It is doable with 20. People do have to listen too long and don’t
get to say as much as they would like to. Somebody does have to
develop facilitator skills, including telling some people to be
quiet and stop interrupting. About eight of the people will be more
dominant, but that’s not necessarily bad – they are speaking for
some of the others who are nodding their heads. Somebody has to
pointedly ask the quiet people what they think.
It really pushes our living room and entryway to put in 25
chairs, and people are crowded. Another issue related to size is
overbooking. I take reservations for the Salon – in the invitation
we say we’re going to cut off at 17, but usually overbook by 3. Then
I feel bad about leaving someone out and may go up to 24, on the
theory that we will have about 2-4 no shows. So far I have never
turned anyone down, and I have a mailing list of around 65.
We make the Salon mostly self-supporting by charging $4, a ‘suggested donation’ to cover some expenses like nametags, bold markers, snacks, beverages, paper cups and plates and napkins, poster paper, the occasional video, the occasional dish for a potluck, and now the website. If you are going to advertise, you will need to increase the amount. Or you can be the sugar daddy of your salon and cover the expenses or seek a sponsor. My business SirReadaLot.org covers some of the Salon’s expenses, like the party to thank the leaders.
Generally we ask people to bring either a snack or a beverage to share. When we have a potluck at the Salon, we usually don’t charge the $4.
We do put out some wine and snacks and no one has gotten offensive by drinking too much. We have had potluck dinners where the discussion of the topic suffered by too much emphasis on the food. (The Chinese New Year Potluck is a case in point.)
I am a strong believer that it helps the Salon to have a
consistent location. We have ours at my house in a downtown
A restaurant or library or other meeting room might work as well,
although it would not have the homey feel of someone’s house. On the
other hand, there would be the advantage of going home and leaving
the mess behind. I would try to avoid a location with heavy class
messages, like a country club. Perhaps rotating regularly between
two houses would work, I don’t know. But what is NOT a good idea is
to have the location constantly changing and people having to use
directions to find new places.
I know this for a fact from another
group I coordinated throughout my 20s and 30s, so I’m not just
talking about old folks who can’t see so well after dark. I also
think a once-a-year change to someone else’s house is good. When you
have it at someone else’s house, particularly in a different
neighborhood or nearby town, it is a great way to bring in new
people. We want to stay interesting and not to shrink with the
inevitable attrition that will occur.
I need someone other than me to check people in. My neighbor
Richard, whom we call the “Godfather”, or you could call the
Registrar, sits near the door with the list of who’s signed up and
collects the $4.
He asks people as they arrive to make a nametag and
check that we have their correct address/phone/email. This sign in
is important not just to collect the money, but also to collect
information on the occasional guest/date for our database. Often
these guests become interested in future salons. In our judgment,
nametags help participants. Even though the “regulars” have learned
each other’s names, newcomers feel more comfortable; nametags make
it less of an “in-group.” When we have new leaders, they often bring
At the Salon, just before it starts, I am usually busy with the
leaders – the Content Leader and the Process Facilitator. I like to
have one person, the Content Leader, focus on the content or subject
matter and another person, the Process Facilitator, focus on people
skills – most people have heard of “group process skills” but only
have a vague idea of what that means. If they have not led before, I
send the Guidelines and
Roles and Responsibilities to read
Most of the time, with two leaders, there has not been time to get together before the salon, so they come early to have a mini-meeting before the salon starts. After they do that, I go over the Salon Guidelines and Roles and Responsibilities. I ask them to differentiate their roles. We figure out how to introduce them and where we are going to take a break or two. I try to get them to think about how to split up the three hours – some questions or activities to make it more varied and interesting – some opportunity for quiet individual reflection or a small group activity so that the more shy or introverted people can speak in a group of, say, four. I may ask them to think about what they would like to see as an outcome of the Salon. I also ask them to sit on opposite sides of the room so they can see a different set of people in the room – this is counter intuitive for most people – they think they need to be next to each other so they can talk privately!
I rarely “lead” the discussion. I think of myself as the coordinator. It’s important, in my opinion to spread the leadership and the ownership of the Salon as wide as possible. It’s a chance for people to develop more sides of themselves, as they see and define themselves. Thinking in terms of Jung’s theory of human development, as they pass midlife, people want to develop their undeveloped side, so they often want to make more of a human connection and build a support network. On the other hand, some people are into stimulating their minds and analyzing the subject matter. People’s leadership skills are highly variable and I have seen growth and development since 2005 when our salons began, in myself as well as in others.
What kind of information about logistics might you, the reader who is thinking about putting on a salon, need? I’ll give the high-level overview and let you get in touch if this is off the mark.
Having a salon is a lot like having a party for 20 people; the big difference is the check-in, which is the money and information collection part of the Salon, the analysis of the topic by the Leader, and, of course, the focused discussion.
Ask someone to be the Registrar.
Simultaneously, get together a Master List of your contacts whom you think would be good conversationalists or who are interested in ideas, the more diverse the better, and/or advertise in the paper/online in the classifieds under “Just Friends.” (Be careful if you advertise; make the ad general about a discussion group so you can screen whom to invite.)
Make an invitation and send it out. (For selection of Examples)
As people to contact you to sign
up, make and save a copy of your Master List and call it by the name
of the Salon, like “Roster Salon Work” so you can check people off
as “registered.” This list will become your “Registered Salon Work”
list, in which you can delete all the names of the people who didn’t
sign up, make a column for them to sign in, then print and give to
the Registrar. At least, this is the way I do it; you may come up
with a different system that works for you.
Set up the living room or porch with enough chairs for everyone – you may have to buy/beg/borrow some folding chairs. We have a great porch but find sitting outside is too noisy; you may live in a quieter area.
Set up a card-table near the door for the Registrar to check people in. (We send people out onto the side porch and have the table set up out there.)
Set up the food and a trash can that is easy for people to find.
Talk with the Leaders just before the Salon:Take the leaders somewhere where you can talk and participants won’t be walking in on you.
The leaders may be nervous. Reassure them they can’t screw up – you are all backing each other up, and nobody is supposed to be an expert. Establish your role as Coordinator with the Leaders. Tell them to sit on opposite sides of the room so they can make eye contact with everyone in the room. Help them differentiate their roles. Show them the Guidelines and Roles and Responsibilities and go over them. Remind them you’re going to kick it off with some “Housekeeping” and “Logistics” and you’re going to introduce them and then they ask the participants to introduce themselves, very briefly. They may have something they want each person to say about themselves, like with the topic Work people could introduce themselves by telling whether they’ve had any difficulties finding work, or something like that. Remind them about the break about 1 ½ hours after the start.
We divert participants to the porch with a sign on the front door saying “Salon sign in,” pointing to registrar table on porch.
You’re ready to roll! Let the festivities begin!
Call for people to come on in to the Salon room when you’re ready.
Tell them you are so glad they came and how much fun you are
going to have. Go over the Guidelines. Ask them to please stay at
the end and help clean up.
What makes a good Salon topic?
Complex. Well, obviously, it has to be complex enough to talk about for 3 hours – but you’d be surprised how little you can cover in three hours if 20 people care about the topic and are trying to have their say. [See Topics Questionnaire.]
Controversial. My friend Charlotte says, “Humor is not a good topic; it doesn’t generate enough controversy.” I guess a Salon needs controversy, but I’m not sure; for me the jury is still out on this one. I’m hoping to try Poetry as a topic and see what happens.
Conflict and difference of opinion. What`about conflict? I have really shied away from Politics – the polarization of 2005/6 may be dying down now – but I want to attract diversity and I do not want everybody getting annoyed at people who rant, contrary to their persuasion, and leaving. You will find materials to skirt around politics and not confront it directly – See the Politics Lite Slide Show and the Let’s Talk Politics Questionnaire and Politics Group Photo. Also, as you teach people to respect and not demonize those they disagree with, it becomes easier to deal with conflicting opinions.
Universal. A topic needs to be something almost everyone is concerned about. I poll the group about every six months, and I’ve had several people tell me, “It doesn’t matter what we talk about, it’s always interesting.”
Personal. I do know it’s important that people can talk about their own experience and I also know the Salon gets boring if it gets too theoretical.
We’ve been married about the same length of time as these Salons
have been going on. He’s not as into them as I am, but he’s quite an
extrovert and he’s a big supporter of me, emotionally and
intellectually. His undergraduate degree is in History and Political
Science and his graduate degree is in Library Science. He’s got all
this stuff conceptualized that I haven’t even thought about yet. So
he helps me think things through. For example, I wanted to do an
activity where people would learn that they are not just
conservative or liberal, left or right, they and their friends “jump
all over the place” politically, but I thought discussing diverse
political ideas would be too confrontational. I imagined creating an
activity or game, which I later named “Politics Lite,” in which I
would string a cord across the room and label one end extreme left
and the other end extreme right to represent a continuum. My husband
helped me come up with the issues. He also does virtually whatever I
ask him to do, from leading a salon on a topic he cares about, like
The Environment to helping clean up and set up chairs.
Mostly we talk. Some of the activities we’ve tried in addition to large group discussion include:
I had the idea of creating an activity or game, which I later named “Politics Lite” in which I would string a cord across the room and label one end extreme left (5) and the other end extreme right (5), with the center being 0 (don’t know, not sure, no opinion) to represent a continuum. [See the Politics Lite Slide Show which you can print off and use yourself.] We would name an issue, like “abortion”, “capital punishment”, “legalizing illegal drugs”, “gay marriage”, “illegal immigration”, “reparations to descendants of slaves”, and “gun control.” We used the game as a warm-up exercise before a Salon on another topic. I told people I would call out an issue and they were to think first where they would go before moving. Then when I said “Go” everyone was to move at once without paying attention to where everyone else was going. This was to prevent people from letting someone else think for them, although I doubt many in this group would do that! We also had a point on the other side of the room where you could go if you felt you were not on the continuum, labeled “radical or eccentric.” And sure enough, we had one person who just went over there and hung out the whole time. This was not only the most fun activity, but really loosened people up in terms of feeling we are indeed all all over the place. And it got rid of that nagging feeling that “we can’t talk about politics.”
I got some girlfriends going – Lois, Mary and Karol – on the way coming back from a women’s beach trip, drafting a list of questions to create a questionnaire to determine how far left (liberal) or right (conservative) a person is. The idea was to extend the progress made with the Politics Lite Game and look a little more deeply at how each person compared to the group on the left/right scale. I typed it up and gave it to my “boy friends” – Richard, Paul and Whit – and each had significant input, drafting additional questions, axing some, and rewriting some. See the result, the Let’s Talk Politics Questionnaire. Of course, it’s not validated or what not, but it works pretty well.
We used it as a warm-up activity at a Salon and people really got
into it. Each person put their total score in extremely large
lettering on a piece of cardstock, pink for righties and blue for
lefties and purple for those in the middle. Then we lined up in the
front yard for a group photo – left to right, reversed. We took a
panoramic picture with the Advantix camera: See the Politics Group
Photo. Too bad it’s grainy because the film in the camera got
overheated. But maybe you can still see in the photo that the scores
go from +40 right, pink (conservative) to -72 left, blue (liberal) –
remember, it’s reversed because a person’s left is on the right in a
photo. The center is definitely skewed to the left in this group,
but that’s still a big range. People really enjoyed being a part of
the group photo.
You may ask, Why take a break?
People’s attention is shot after 1 ½ hours, often before that. People need a break from all the intensity. Plus they need to go to the bathroom and get another drink. During breaks people keep talking, sometimes about the topic, sometimes about a “meta-topic”, which may be a breakthrough idea. Mostly they focus on making a personal connection with each other. People can also do one thing that people do to make connection with each other which is harmful to a group: sometimes they talk about each other or criticize their ideas during the break. Like: “All us smart people feel this way, but that so-and-so over there is a dolt for thinking that other way.” It was negative feedback that led me to develop the “Politics Lite” Game.
During the break, I check in with the leaders and may help them
figure out where to direct conversation after the break. I also try
to circulate, asking people how it’s going and what we may need to
change, or what is the elephant under the rug that we are all acting
like we don’t notice.
I send out invitations about one month in advance, shortly after the preceding Salon. [See Sample Invitations.] If there is more than a month between Salons, I send them out 1 ½ months in advance. I have a permanent group set up in my e-mail address book and send the email invitation to the whole group. Once you have this set up, it is an incredible timesaver. Of course it take a fair amount of maintenance, because people are constantly being added and changing e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers. I still have to send paper invitations to about 5 people out of 65 who don’t have email. I put both my e-mail address and my phone number on the invitation and ask for responses, trying to create some urgency by saying “the first 17 people who respond to this invitation will get a place in the Salon.” If the Salon is not full two weeks out, I send a reminder email saying “there are a few places left.”
We haven’t undertaken any formal publicity like press releases or
asking a reporter to cover the Salon in a newspaper so far. As
To help people communicate across barriers of class, age, race,
gender and political persuasion to build communication and community
Volunteer Team Leaders