Tell Me About It

Alice Señeres, The Graduate School

Honorable Mention

 

The Princeton community is teeming with thoughtful and compassionate people. We are often, out of necessity, classified by our roles. Staff. Faculty. Postdoc. Student. Imagine a place where anyone in the community could choose to connect over what is important to an individual on that specific day.

We brim with news that is important to us—from the small yet meaningful to the life-changing. Your news makes you who you are and how you are. It might make you start to tear up, break into a smile, or have a stomachache due to all the mixed emotions. It’s brimming right beneath your surface, yet out of sight; when people ask how you are, you’re “fine.”

I propose Princeton develop a campus coffee shop called “Tell Me About It.” It has all the perks of a regular coffee shop—comfortable chairs, ample Wi-Fi, tasty beverages. It’s a place where you can go to work, connect, or relax. Bring your laptop, a friend, or a good book. It would be open to anyone at Princeton; the only caveat is you pick up three items as you enter: a dry-erase marker, a table tent with a permanent prompt of “Ask me about…,” and a four-minute timer. Get your favorite beverage, settle into your favorite seat, fill out the table tent and set it out near you. Ask me about the podcast I’m trying to start. Ask me about my mom’s diagnosis. Ask me about my favorite baseball team. Ask me about my new cat.

You enjoy your coffee, read your book, work on your laptop, and at any point, another customer can approach you, read your prompt, turn over the four-minute timer, and say, “Tell me about it.” Listening with compassion and attention, they provide you a chance to share your news and connect on a personal level. When the timer is up, the conversation wraps up. You go back to your laptop and coffee; when you need a break, you look at the other customers’ prompts and approach one of them, inviting them to tell you about it.

Why spill your guts to a relative stranger— even one within the Princeton community? Sometimes it is easier to have an honest dialogue with someone you don’t know that well; they have no stake in your situation. What you are wrestling with won’t impact them at all, though it may impact your family or friends. Talking it out can also help you crystallize your own thoughts and gain insight from someone who has a fresh and neutral perspective. And if it’s good news, passing it along can be contagious. Who wouldn’t be happy to learn that someone just fulfilled a life-long dream of getting their own horse? Even if you’re not a horseback rider yourself, hearing about it can remind you with excitement that bold goals can be achieved.

Years ago, I was lingering over a chai in a coffeeshop at a crossroads in my life. Another customer casually asked about the math textbook in front of me. I explained my father had just passed away after a sudden illness, and I was trying to decide if I should use the money he left me to go to my dream Ph.D. program at Columbia. The customer took a thoughtful sip of his coffee and asked me a question that changed my life. “What would your dad want you to do?” he asked. I knew the answer in an instant. My dad had always encouraged me to pursue a career and degrees that I was interested in. He would undoubtedly have wanted me to get my Ph.D.—because I wanted to get it. I accepted my admission offer the next day.

People can pick and choose who they approach based on the person’s table tent prompt. Everyone has lived experiences that impact what they are and aren’t comfortable hearing about. Some people may shy away from any mention of illness; others have been down that road themselves and feel well-equipped to empathize. Any dog person would love to hear about someone’s new puppy. (Cat lovers can choose someone else to approach.) A customer may have a prompt that triggers a long-dormant memory in someone who realizes that providing an ear can be a great comfort.

With these dialogues, people can talk about what is on their minds and connect on a one-on-one level. By having an outlet to share their news, whatever it is that day, they can bring their whole selves to Princeton. It would foster a sense of trust and community. Tell me about it!