by Scout Magazine | In the past few years you may have noticed an unusual sign on your walks down Water Street. It’s not a stern street sign or a neon-glowing barfront. On one side it reads, “Don’t talk to strangers.” The thought is completed on the reverse: “You might fall in love.” It’s an uplifting idea, a refreshing departure from what we expect when we see a public sign, and until now it was mostly unexplained and the team who built it largely unknown. But for the reveal of a second sign, titled Exchange of Charm, set for Thursday May 14th at the Museum of Vancouver, we spoke with Shannon Powell who, along with artist Dan Climan, created the Strangers piece.
The Strangers slogan arose from a series of conversations Shannon held with friends about the fear of interacting with new people. “People are very afraid of change and connection, and of good things happening to them,” Shannon says. A slogan popped into her head: “Don’t talk to strangers, you might fall in love.”
“Someone should put that on a sign,” she remembers thinking. So along with patron Scott Hawthorn and artist Dan Climan, they did. Since then the sign has become a hub for tourists and wedding photographers, and prompted countless pauses and smiles from untold passers-by. “I liked the idea of it being this little magical moment in your day,” Shannon says. “Maybe it makes you stop and think, maybe it pushes you about opening up to possibilities.”
On a deeper level the project challenges the accepted nature of signs. Traditionally they either give or take away permission: stop here, no u-turns. With this one Shannon hoped to subvert that nature into something more positive. “What if I were giving people permission to uplift themselves?” She says. “To explore their relationships with their city and their ideas of social interactions?”
The concept behind Exchange of Charm was again inspired through her personal experience. One summer she lived in Italy. Newly arrived, she didn’t realize that Italians traditionally eschew milk in their coffee after about 10am. “I used to walk into this cafe,” Shannon recalls, “and everyone that worked there would turn around and go ‘cappuccino!'”
“These little exchanges of charm allowed me to feel like I was actually known by people in the community.” Brief interactions and casual camaraderie like this are critical to feeling involved in a community, and have tangible influence on a person’s mental and physical health. Recent studies have shown that people in smaller communities generally feel more content than their big-city counterparts. More access to community, friendly interaction and simple relationships foster a deeper sense of belonging.
Shannon hopes this new sign will help bring that small-town mindset to the city. It doesn’t take much effort. “Even just saying hi to a stranger says ‘I see you, you see me, we actually exist,'” Shannon says.
After its time at the Museum, Exchange will be mounted at different spots around the city, turning each location into a designated area where people are encouraged to step outside their comfort zone. So if you come across it on your way around the city, think about pausing for a moment.
“Stand underneath it,” Shannon says, “and see what happens.”
Full event details here.
Ed. note: This story has been edited and expanded to include information brought to our attention by a reader.