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Spontaneous Society: An Audio Improvisation

Lab Notes I: Trends from the New York Lab | Emotional Cityness

Spontaneous Society Preview

Spontaneous Society provides a communication primer: a lesson in affectionate discourse bridging races, ages, classes; a reminder that the present, barring violence, is to be celebrated before it vanishes into nothingness. 

Among his tips on turning cities into “engines for joy,” Lab Team member Charles Montgomery stresses interacting with strangers. He says: “Being kind is not just good for other people. My favorite neuroeconomist, Paul Zak, has shown that acts of altruism can flood your system with a happy hormone known as oxytocin.” Montgomery asks us to “help little old ladies cross the street,” to “merge politely in traffic,” and to “open doors for people,” all for the sake of feeling and passing on “the buzz.”

Curious to learn more, I looked up Paul Zak. I’d never heard of neuroeconomics. Its premises are that happy people tend to engage with others, and that cooperative engagement is key for a society’s economic health. We buzz cognitively and existentially during moments of connection. Our bodies fill with oxytocin—“a pure, social chemical released within seconds of positive social stimulus,” as Zak says during this captivating Lab interview.

The molecule, at least 400 million years old, is found in all mammals. But once released it passes quickly to our kidneys. Zak notes that “oxytocin goes right from our brain into the toilet.” He recommends frequent social contact, whether smiling, talking, hugging, or giving gifts. These actions (as well as having sex, giving birth, breastfeeding) release the chemical, which in turn leads to a desire for greater contact.

Such discoveries have explanatory power. For one thing, they help me understand how cultures arise. They also help clarify why Spontaneous Society—an interactive walk I lead through different New York neighborhoods—is so fun and addictive.

Over the years I’ve developed a catalog of one-line utterances that are 99% effective in terms of replacing urban anonymity with affection. I’ve tested each line thousands of times over thousands of blocks across multiple cities. Samples include:

That’s a good-looking dog.(said to someone approaching with a dog)

That’s a good-looking duo.(said to someone approaching with two dogs)

That’s a good-looking wolfpack.(said to someone approaching with three or more dogs—surprisingly common in New York)

That looks pretty cozy.(said to someone pushing a baby carriage)

It must be nice to have a little helper.(said to someone with a kid pushing a carriage or helping in another way)

That’s a good pace.(said to someone jogging past)

It’s a good day for a ride.(said to someone biking past)

It’s a good day for a skate.(said to someone skating past)

That’s a good parking-spot.(said to someone exiting a car)

It’s a nice day for a picnic.(said to someone eating on a bench, blanket, or doorstep)

It’s a nice day to have the feet out.(said to someone resting their bare feet)

I hope the pizza pie stays warm.(said to someone holding a pizza box)

They say carrying bags is good exercise.(said to someone holding heavy bags)

That looks like a handy cart.(said to someone pushing a handcart)

That’s a good spot for a text.(said to someone typing a message)

Safe travels.(said to someone wheeling a suitcase)

These lines, among others, form Spontaneous Society’s core. Adults, kids, even non-human animals respond to them. Once I told a man with a white parakeet on his finger: “That’s a good-looking bird.” The bird smiled then smoothed its feathers. It said “Good evening.”

Though listed as 90-minute events, Spontaneous Society walks often last two or more hours. Participants want to keep the buzz going. They’ll each try out some of my lines before improvising their own. Everybody starts to sense the power lurking inside basic, affirmative utterances, not to mention the altruistic joy of intensifying pleasure within the flow of daily life.

We’re at a tough spot right now—environmentally, economically, you name it. Anger and fear are pervasive. One way to address these widespread problems is by addressing each other with kindness in the mundane world. This much is up to us. Spontaneous Society provides a communication primer: a lesson in affectionate discourse bridging races, ages, classes; a reminder that the present, barring violence, is to be celebrated before it vanishes into nothingness.

Audiovisual components

Here’s a Spontaneous Society audio piece. It comes from a solo walk through Brooklyn (all my walks, whether alone or in groups, aim for spontaneous communion). The piece opens with a siren, ends with a scream, and includes 22 encounters. On that September day I’d found myself mourning the disappearance of summer. So I took this melancholy to the sidewalks, where—within seconds—it turned into celebration among my fellow New Yorkers, most of whom I’ll never see again. But their voices and laughter remain.

* * *

And here are photos from a Spontaneous Society event. They appear courtesy of Elastic City, which presented Spontaneous Society in 2011. Each walk had five participants plus myself. Elastic City creates “ongoing poetic exchange with the places we live in and visit” through interactive projects.




Spontaneous Society Rehearsal



It's a nice day for ping-pong

“It’s a nice day for ping-pong.”


That's a good spot for a text

“That’s a good spot for a text.”


“It’s a good day for a skate.”


“That’s a nice spot to catch up on some reading.”


“That’s a good-looking dog.”


Cool ice-cream truck

“Cool ice-cream truck.”

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the second is the Need to Promote Emotional Cityness.

  • ivana

    its not spontaneous at all. its just a cliche american converstaion phrases

    • Jon Cotner

      I’d recommend listening to the audio piece, Ivana. This way you’ll hear the lines in action. They could seem clichéd on the surface, but their simplicity makes them powerfully communicative.

  • ivana

    What is the benefit, what are you doing? Maybe it’s a cultural bias that I do not understand … but what is the purpose of these recordings. I am not questioning what you do, but because often I’m doing research, which questioned the benefits of research. Is it part of research, or the game than? I will listen to them, its certainly interesting.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Ivana, the audio is meant to recreate the humorous and tender tone of a Spontaneous Society event. Hope you enjoy.

  • ivana

    ok. thanks for sharing :)

  • Emily Herzlin

    I love this. Listening to the audio makes ME smile just imagining these interactions. Keep up the great work, Jon.

  • Jason

    This whole idea is wondeful. I want to try out the lines in my own city, and see what happens.

  • Jack

    It’s interesting to consider how deep such a small gesture can be, and what that says about how we live/interact now. It reminds me, there are folks I’ve met just once but whose memory I hold onto because their attitude or speech just struck me as ‘good’ in a way that seemed profound. This is a great piece. 

  • Siobhan Kümm

    I think this is fabulous. It’s so easy to forget that the multitude of people you pass by on a daily basis are just like you. If you pause and extend a small greeting, it forms a connection. Love it.

  • edie

    Love this – I really try to do this in my city – Halifax, Nova Scotia….a great city!

  • Diane Ryan

    Jon – I really really enjoyed this project.  How can I participate in a Spontaneous Society “event”?  Diane

    • Jon Cotner

      Thanks so much, Diane. If you’re on Twitter, please find me @joncotner for updates and news.


  • J.G. Johnson

    Is the Lab ever headed to the West Coast?  I would love to check it out!

    • Anonymous

      Hi J.G., at the moment we’ve announced that we’ll be traveling to Berlin and Mumbai, but please stay tuned for upcoming city news. Thanks so much for your interest!

  • Secret Agent L In Pgh

    i LOVE this! connecting with others–extending ourselves–really does make a difference and moves us toward peace. :) thank for sharing this!

  • DaddyBlogZAUK

    It’s true! Brightening up somebody else’s day does give you a feel good buzz! Hadn’t realised it was oxytocin, although knew that was the chemical in the body associated with sex, breast feeding etc! Great article! Is this the same that gives you a buzz when you are laughing your socks off over smthing v.funny?

  • THERAPISTS SUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  • Todd Edelman

    It is of course absolutely clear that the main product of BMW nearly completely denies spontaneity in the public space, so it is utterly sad and ironic that Paul Zak has agreed to take part in this perverse charade coming out of Munich, and even more so that many people are falling for it. 

    BMW deserves no prize for this – except from the marketing directors of dead dictators – but to their credit they seem to not normally delete critical comments like this one!

  • mattr

    That’s a nice project!

  • jennifer prod

    awesome project — make it easy for everyone to connect with strangers on the street. i’ve been doing similar experiments with strangers to help make the city a little more friendly — good work!!