In this age of digital super-connection, is it possible to feel less connected to each other than ever before. One London startup is urging people to come together once more by simply starting a conversation. Those at Chatter Bags hope to get people talking in the most natural way, face to face, and celebrate London’s unrivalled diversity at the same time.
Launching in December 2014 to a market saturated with products and apps promoting connection in all its guises, Chatter Bags went back to basics. Its core product for London is a simple, ethically-produced tote bag featuring the words “I speak…” followed by 20 options. From Portuguese to Romanian, these are the most widely spoken languages in London and each has a tickable box next it. The idea is that Londoners tick the boxes that apply to them and then carry the bag displaying their languages, open to any conversation that may follow. The company’s slogan is ‘made to make conversation’ and it really does work, explains founder Mark Beehan.
“One girl bought a bag before going travelling. She went to Ecuador and then was in Brazil for the Rio Carnival, wearing her bag. She speaks Spanish, Czech, German and English and said she met so many people on holiday who are now friends. Our bag introduced her to the world.”
Chatter Bags came into being because, Mark says, “people just don’t talk to each other enough. There are 8.6 million people in the city and it can be so hard to get to know anybody. There are applications for everything out there, whether it be dating or pizza, but people can also be very closed off. So we want to engage people face to face, without any apps. We asked: ‘What do people have in common?’ And the answer is language: because we all speak something.”
Chatter Bags give holders the courage to strike up a conversation, says Mark, and encourage people to delve beyond the superficial.
“From looking at you, I don’t know what language you speak,” he says. “I speak a bit of Dutch and a bit of Italian, which you wouldn’t necessarily know from my Irish farmer’s accent, but it’s nice to have a little conversation in those languages too now and again. I worked as a restauranteur for years, in Dublin, Amsterdam, Berlin and London, which was great fun, but because of the hours, it was so hard to meet anybody. The team and I have a strong sense of social purpose – we really to connect people and improve people’s wellbeing through doing that.”
The bags have taken on a life of their own, from the London edition being sold in pop-up shops and at www.chatterbags.com – proving particularly popular in the trendy likes of Shoreditch and Hackney – to unique versions being requested for events, conferences, at schools and universities and even embassies.
And though Mark is keen for Chatter Bags to be explored primarily in ‘real life’, customers are inevitably sharing their stories of conversational success – including through social media. Despite Londoners’ sometimes-frosty veneers, Mark believes that everybody shares an inherent desire to connect. “Many of us are stuck with our heads in our phones, swiping our way through life, and we want to persuade people to step away from that. If you scratch the surface, London holds so many possibilities: whether it’s finding out something about someone’s culture, their life story or just a recipe. Everybody wants to feel part of something. Nobody wants to feel lonely. All of us want to feel safer and more connected. Our bags cater for anybody who wants to have a conversation.”
And Mark’s own experiences in London have consolidated in him a desire to bring people together. “My neighbour is half Surinamese [Suriname is a country in South America] and has Chinese heritage too. Suriname has a really rich culture but I’d never spoken her until one day we got talking while I was throwing out my rubbish. Now, I say hello to her every day. But she lived in the area for 30 years and doesn’t know many of her neighbours at all. It’s sad that people don’t engage.”
On the other hand, what London offers in terms of culture, cuisine and opportunity is unsurpassed around the world
“The history, the knowledge you can gain from being here, the history: London is absolutely magical,” he says. “Once you give the city a chance to open up, it offers endless opportunities.”
The London bag has a space left blank for less commonly spoken languages – the likes of Surinamese – but it does feature British Sign Language, and there is story behind its inclusion.
“I used to get the train every morning into Charing Cross,” says Mark, “and it was so busy in the morning rush hour. People were absolutely packed in. There were two guys on the train who looked like builders. They were wearing tracksuit bottoms with paint all over them. People were yelling and swearing at them to move down the train, but they didn’t and I thought like everyone else that they were being really rude. And then one day, I saw one of them sign to the other. They weren’t being rude at all. So it was important to me that we included British Sign Language.”
But crucially, Chatter Bags aren’t about feeling superior about your linguistic skills, or shameful about your lack of them. The team have produced bags featuring ‘American,’ ‘Essex,’ ‘Northern’ and ‘Scottish’ options already, tongue-in-cheek conversation-starters in themselves.
“Above all, we want our logo to be recognisable as a conversation starter,” says Mark. “We are simply offering people the chance to get stuck in and to get to know one another. And,” he says with a grin, “our bags carry your shopping as well”.