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“I think we need to embrace the awkwardness”: How a Toronto brewery is helping people relearn the art of small talk

“I think we need to embrace the awkwardness”: How a Toronto brewery is helping people relearn the art of small talk
Photo courtesy of Halo Brewery

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Bars and restaurants are finally open for business—but is it business as usual? Not according to Sara Vinten, the co-owner and creative director of Halo Brewery who says that many of us have “forgotten how to interact with other humans in 3D.” To help patrons flex those flabby small-talk muscles, the Junction Triangle brewery has introduced something called ReSocialization Hour, when isolation-weary patrons can grab a seat at the ReSocialization Station and engage in the long-forgotten art of the gab.

You launched ReSocialization Hour last week. Where did the idea come from? A few weeks ago, we were just kind of laughing as a team about our own anxieties around being back together and what the new normal is going to look like. We were saying that we needed to have an hour devoted towards learning how to interact with other humans again and then said we could do a ReSocialization Hour. So it started as a joke, but then it was like, okay, maybe that’s actually a good idea. We know from chatting with our customers that there is a big appetite for forming social connections again—I think a loss of that sense of community has been collateral damage of the pandemic that we probably don’t talk about enough—but also that a lot of people may not be feeling so confident. We’ve sort of forgotten how to interact with other humans in 3D.

So you’ve noticed that people are a little out of practice, socially speaking? I’ve definitely noticed that in myself. It’s been two years of actively avoiding other people, particularly people who we don’t know—sometimes it means crossing the street just to avoid that close contact. And now we’re supposed to suddenly just jump back in like nothing has happened? I don’t think that makes a lot of sense. I think we need to embrace the awkwardness. Acknowledge the fact that our social skills have really lapsed over the last two years and that maybe it’s going to take some work to get them back. And also that making connections may be a little harder now or at least feel a little harder with all of the anxiety.

Like people are scared of Covid? I think it’s that, but it’s more just that people don’t know how to be casual anymore. Everything we’ve done over the last two years has been scheduled, even those Zoom calls to catch up with friends. So I think there’s a lot of, “Wait, what’s normal? Is it normal to smile at a stranger?"

Walk me through the experience. I come in and then what? Do I have to sit somewhere specific? You are welcome to sit wherever you want, but the “ReSocialization Station” is at a large table that seats six people. We have reserved the seating for this purpose and put a sign on the table that says, “Sit here if you’re comfortable meeting a stranger and ready to relearn how to be human together.”

“I think we need to embrace the awkwardness”: How a Toronto brewery is helping people relearn the art of small talk
Photo courtesy of Halo Brewery

I worry it would be a lot of awkward small talk. Like I said, embrace the awkward and just keep in mind that these kinds of interactions—connections between two people sitting near each other at a bar—used to happen organically. A bar is like one big socialization station. It just feels weird because it’s been such a long time.

Any favourite icebreakers? I tend to default to pandemic pets. My partner, Callum, and I adopted our rescue cat Flux in November 2020, and so many other people I know adopted pets over the last couple of years. I don’t know if anyone wants to talk about their sourdough starter or their indoor gardening anymore, but it’s sort of funny to discuss the pandemic tropes. Even though we’ve been apart there are a lot of shared experiences we went through. And then the other thing here is that most of people who come into Halo have an interest in beer, so if all else fails, fall back on that topic. And we are offering $15 flights as part of the promotion, which means you have a variety of different samples to comment on. So that’s a pretty good starting point: “Which one’s your favourite?” “Which is the most surprising?”

I guess after a few drinks, the conversation might flow a little more naturally? Well, of course we encourage responsible consumption, but yes, it helps.

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What kinds of interactions have you observed so far? The first night was mostly regulars and then the second night we had a few newcomers. At one point it was five people sitting at the table together, so that was pretty awesome. Callum went over to the table just to check in and the conversation was fun and lively.

Any newfound friends who you think will continue to hang out? Not that I’ve seen, but that’s the goal. It’s funny because there have been a lot of apps introduced during the pandemic that aim to connect people over shared interests—and then eventually they can migrate off the platform and just become regular friends, so that’s something we would love to see happen.

So you’re basically platonic Tinder for tech-adverse beer lovers? Ha! That sounds about right.

What if I’m looking for romance? Is ReSocialization Hour the right place for me? It could be. I met my partner in a bar—at the old Green Room in the Annex in 2008. It’s a challenge because at bars and restaurants and other community spaces, the whole point is to bring people together—to build that social fabric. But at the same time, now more than ever, you want people to feel comfortable and that looks different for every person. It’s not like you can wear a green bracelet if you’re open to being approached and a red one if you’re not. So I guess that’s what we’re trying to do with the ReSocialization Station.

Are there any topics that should not be broached at the ReSocialization Station? Politics? Religion? Mask mandates in schools? Oh boy. I like to think we encourage all sorts of productive dialogue if the mindset is learning from another person. There are definitely a lot more tense topics these days, so I guess we just keep an eye as the silent hosts and make sure everyone is being respectful. This is intended to be a positive experience, so we don’t want any fights breaking out.

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