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Utne Salons: ‘Think Globally, Act Vocally’

August 11, 1992

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Look who’s talking: an accountant, a jewelry store clerk, a few artists, a librarian, two attorneys and a health policy analyst.

They belong to an Utne Reader salon, a group of readers who want talk that’s more substantial than what they get from Geraldo, Oprah or Phil.

″They’re famous for talking,″ said salonniste David Ford, the health policy analyst. ″We discovered that we can do that, too.″

Knowing only that they had a ZIP code, a desire to talk and a magazine subscription in common, they began gathering a year ago in their homes once a month in answer to a call ″to revive the endangered art of conversation.″

Ford calls it ″intentional talking.″

More than a year ago, the Utne Reader - a bimonthly digest for the hip which publishes articles and synopses from the alternative press - invited readers to reinvent the conversation groups that were popular in high society and among the literati in Paris and New York decades ago.

About 13,000 readers out of Utne’s 260,000 circulation have responded to editor in chief Eric Utne’s encouragement to ″think globally, act vocally.″

Utne sorted responding readers by ZIP codes into some 500 salons, not all of which have survived. About 6,000 participants have paid $12 to join the Neighborhood Salon Association, according to Griff Wigley, the magazine’s official ″salon keeper.″

Magazine officials, who expected a few hundred replies, were surprised by the response, and they tried to explain it.

″There’s no structure in our society that makes it easy to engage in deliberate, thoughtful conversation,″ Wigley said. ″We’re awash in information as a culture and yet woefully uninformed. Part of getting an understanding of complex issues is to put a concept into words. This is a way of trying to make sense.″

To Ford, the salons harken back to a primal need of community, a sense of connectedness lost in big cities like Philadelphia.

″It’s part of human beings being tribal creatures. It has something to do with being human, with what it means to be human - but you can’t take this too seriously,″ he said.

Ford’s fellow salonniste, Joanne Dvorsky, doesn’t. She joined because she found the salon a safe way to meet people with similar values and interests.

″I love to talk. Talking allows for not only the exchange of ideas but the refinement of your own,″ she said.

Part of the salon’s success arose from the shared backgrounds and interests among its members. The members of Ford’s salon are all white and well-educated - and they read Utne Reader.

″So far, it’s worked amazingly well, in my opinion,″ Ford wrote in an article in the current issue. ″I guess there’s a certain type of person who reads Utne Reader - and they tend to be the kind of people who will like each other. Can you imagine a salon of Cosmopolitan readers? They might like each other, but what would they talk about?″

But, Ford said, they also strive for diversity of viewpoints and topics.

Among this year’s topics: the Los Angeles riot, ghost stories, why space aliens would travel to Earth, personal myths and the value of home education.

″Part of the joy of a salon is the different perspectives,″ he said.

Dvorsky, who works at a desk-top publishing company, said that (for once) she agrees with Ford on the importance of diversity in the group.

″We lucked out. We’re similar yet different enough to keep it going. You need different color Crayolas in the Crayola box to color your world,″ she said.

To nurture the salons, the association provides members with a list of interested Utne Readers in the area, a quarterly newsletter, an eight-page guide called ″The Salon-Keeper’s Companion,″ and a membership card - ″people like that,″ Wigley said.

″The Salon-keeper’s Companion″ provides hints on whether to serve refreshments (alcohol is discouraged), ideas on how to handle the first and often awkward meeting, and outlines the variations on gatherings, from salons to lecture-presentations to councils and study circles.

It doesn’t advise salon participants on how to deal with problem members, but so far, only three or four salons have reported any trouble, usually with an aggressive or overbearing member, according to Wigley.

Ford’s salon worked through how to organize the group (whoever hosts the meeting gets to choose the topic; they meet the third Sunday of every month), whether guests are permitted (only at special parties), and how they would approach each conversational topic - whether in dialogue or taking turns to make a statement (the latter).

They discovered early on that membership in a salon requires another social skill some say is almost disappearing - the art of listening.

But - with some talking, of course - that wasn’t much of a stumbling block.

″No one teaches you how to listen or have a conversation,″ he said. ″It just happens.″