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Small talk can be awkward, but this anti-loneliness group in VT is undaunted

A woman in a nordic sweater shakes hand with a man in a striped sweater after they were introduced.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Rutland resident Donna Stanton meets Cuttingsville resident Harold Niblack at a recent gathering in Rutland put on by Social Tinkering. It's a nonprofit organization in Rutland that's trying to help people in the community make new friends and build connections to fight the growing epidemic of loneliness and depression.

Since the pandemic, many of us feel out of practice when it comes to socializing and making new friends. In fact, nearly half of Americans admit to feeling lonely — something the surgeon general warns is bad for our health.

That’s something Rutland resident Jeanette Langston is trying to address by making it easier for people in her community to connect.

On a recent Wednesday night, about a dozen people braved sleet and icy roads to attend what Langston calls a gather-together.

“Garrison, how are you? It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other,” she greeted one man who walked in.

Donna Stanton came in a few minutes later. Stanton moved to Rutland six years ago.

”I live in a very nice neighborhood, but a lot of people are professional and they’re out all the time," she said. "It’s hard to meet people when you move to a place. So this is a great opportunity to be part of the community.”

Several long tables are lined up in the small barn-like building. One has hot chocolate and tea fixings along with bowls of popcorn, pretzels and other snacks.

A portrait of a woman in an orange jacket with reddish brown hair wearing chunky earrings and a necklace.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Jeanette Langston is the founder and director of Social Tinkering. "When you have a support network in your life, even just a couple of good friends, it makes life better," she said. "It helps you thrive because you have somebody to turn to when you’ve had a crappy day or someone to celebrate with you when you’ve had a great day.”

A group of kids play a game in one corner of the room while a handful of adults wearing bright name tags chat and mingle.

Conversations that start with awkward small talk evolve and grow more animated as people relax.

“I love that it’s not a bar,” said Russ Green, “You know, bars can have an upside, they're social circles, but I’ve never been a bar person.”

Green lives on Long Island, but he has a weekend house in Plymouth that he hopes to move to full time. He’s not married and wants to make local friends. “So, here I am!” he laughs.

A table with lots of papers, stickers and clipboards welcomes people at a recent social gathering in Rutland.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
When people attend one of Social Tinkering's gather-togethers, they're asked to wear a name tag and encouraged to choose a sticker that reflects how they're feeling when they arrive and a second sticker that reflects how they're feeling when they leave.

These casual, monthly get-togethers, funded with help from the local United Way, are part of a social experiment Jeanette Langston is conducting. They're an effort to counteract all the loneliness and anxiety she says people are struggling with.

“We all have the articles and we all have the TED talks. We all have access to that,” she said. “But people are still really unhappy and getting unhappier. So why are people unhappy?”

Langston answered her own question: “For me, it really came from my experience of feeling a lack of connection."

Langston said several years ago when she and husband were living in Utah, she became friends with a wonderful group of women who surrounded her and her family with support and a sense of belonging. “It made a world of difference in my life,” she explained. “And I thrived and the people in that group thrived, and I watched every one of us affect each other in these really cool ways.”

“And I thought… I wanted to do this for everyone, to help everyone feel how much social connections can impact us,” she continued, nodding.

For Langston, it was one of those ah-ha moments.

"When you have a support network in your life, even just a couple of good friends, it makes life better. It helps you thrive because you have somebody to turn to when you’ve had a crappy day or someone to celebrate with you when you’ve had a great day.”
Jeanette Langston, founder of Social Tinkering

Science backs her up. Social interactions trigger the release of endorphins and other chemicals in our brain that make us feel good and improve our mental health. Isolation, on the other hand, increases our risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease and dementia.

Langston said it’s why she created Social Tinkering — a concept she said she mulled over for years before creating the nonprofit in 2021.

“Rutland is our prototype," she said. "We want to get this started and test out some ideas and see, 'how do we do this thing?'"

It’s not just about throwing parties and events. Langston said it's about creating a space where everyone feels safe and included no matter their race, age, gender or sexual orientation.

A man in a long sleeved purple sweater sits at a table talking to a woman with long blond hair and glasses.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Russ Green, left, chats with Donna Stanton at a recent "gather-together" event hosted by Social Tinkering in Rutland. Green lives and works on Long Island but owns a weekend home in Plymouth. He hopes to move to Vermont permanently and attended the social mixer to make local friends.

To do that, she said people need to better understand stigma. Barriers need to be broken. It’s challenging stuff, Langston said. She admits she’s had a steep learning curve. After moving to Rutland with her family in 2019, she completed her Diploma in Social Innovation at the University for Peace, an international studies program established by the United Nations. She’s also taking courses with the World Happiness Academy — yeah, that’s a thing.

More locally, she's reached out to a broad array of people in the community for help. Harold Niblack, a 60-year-old Army veteran from Cuttingsville, assists part time with outreach.

“When I met Jeanette, we just had the best conversation as far as outlook on life and the value of people and how we connect,” Niblack said. “For me, as much as we can bring people together — it doesn't matter who you are — and have a conversation. I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve had a conversation with someone and they’re just like, ‘You’re not what I expected.’ It’s like, ‘You’ve never met me, I don’t know what you were expecting.’”

A white paper with black printed guidelines that spell out how Social Tinkering wants guests to act around each other.
Nina Keck
This framed sheet of guidelines is on the table near the entrance to Social Tinkering's events to remind people how they want guests to act around each other.

Thanks to grant funding, Langston said she's been able to hire two full-time staff members, including Marissa Arduca. Arduca is 28, has a background working with autistic youth and is active in Rutland’s LGBTQ+ community. She said that after the lockdown days of the pandemic, she empathizes with people who feel anxious about socializing.

“I just learned how comfortable I am at home by myself and not talking to anybody,” she said. “So now I have to, like, unlearn that it’s okay to go out and talk to people and learn how to almost be a human in society again.”

A chart with different colored stickers reads "How are you feeling?" with descriptive words underneath each color.
Nina Keck
A chart shows what feelings each sticker color represents. Participants are asked to choose a sticker at the beginning and end of each event.

She said staffing the group’s events has reminded her how powerful face-to-face connections are. “I leave so elated and excited and happy and rejuvenated, so it’s kind of cool,” Arduca said.

“Every once and a while, you’ll be out and about and you’ll run into someone you meet here,” added Donna Stanton, smiling. “I think the pandemic was difficult for a lot of people, and I think people are searching for connections.”

Russ Green, across from Stanton, nodded. "I know that loneliness and depression is just rampant in America. It’s just an epidemic ... and that’s why so many people go to bars and they turn to drugs and whatever else to kind of assuage the loneliness."

"It's such a positive vibe,” he said, pointing around the room, “It should be going on everywhere. I mean, I think we’d have a lot less problems in society if we could come together and share stories and hang out. It’s such a brilliant idea!”

Jeanette Langston says her goal is to open a community living room in Rutland that will serve a lot more people and be paid for with a combination of grants, local sponsors and memberships.

“Kind of like a coffee shop. It's fun — you want to go hang out there,” she said. “Different shifts of people working different hours and people with different lifestyles can come at different times.

She envisions special events, speakers and group training, but says mostly it’ll be a place where all sorts of people can sit, relax and build friendships and meet their community.

That's exactly what Russ Green is looking for. Asked if he's made new friends with the group, he laughed, “I’m in the process, this is my first time here so I’ll let you know."

But he said he's already planning to come back.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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