yarning circle noun: a gathering of people who sit in a circle to share experience, knowledge, or ideas; a place where such a meeting is held.
During the 1951 Australian election campaign, a federal minister rolled up to a town hall meeting to find a group of local farmers chatting before the event:
Outside a tiny hall in the small town of Ariah Park, near Temora, a group of wool growers formed a yarning circle. The Treasurer (Mr Fadden), on his election tour, drove up, jumped from his car, and in characteristic manner shook hands all round. (Melbourne Age, 9 April 1951)
Here, ‘yarning’ just describes what the group of farmers are doing, while standing in a circle (discussing, perhaps, the weather or the price of wool). They are ‘yarning’ in the Australian use of the word: talking, or chatting. Australian English records this meaning from the 1840s. It is a transferred use of British English yarn, ‘to tell a story’ – often an improbable one, as in the expression to spin a yarn. The Australian sense has lost the element of the tall story.
In 1951 the term yarning circle was not an established collocation (the writer may well have described the group differently, as a chatting circle, for instance). But in the 21st century yarning circle is very much an established term with a specific meaning. It derives from an Indigenous way of group interaction, and is now widely recognised as a useful communication tool, especially in community and educational settings.
In a yarning circle people sit in a circle to listen to others, to learn, and to share their views. It’s a democratic form of dialogue. Although one person may open or lead the discussion, the circle usually has no formal hierarchy:
The highlight of the day was the yarning circle, which gave women the space to discuss and showcase their personal success stories and provide support and encouragement to one another. (Thursday Island Torres News, 21 March 2012)
The first written evidence appears early this century, in a report of an Indigenous art exhibition:
Hear Aboriginal artist Gloria Beckett talk about her life and work on Saturday…. Beckett and Troy Thompsen will hold a Murri Yarning Circle which takes participants on a journey through their life, work and inspiration in an informal way. (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 20 February 2002)
The article explains the novel idea of a yarning circle to its readers: ‘Think of it as a very relaxed lecture in the round.’ But even a ‘relaxed lecture’ suggests a hierarchy of knowledge. Later evidence emphasises the more democratic nature of the circle—here including a prime minister:
Mr Howard's first trip to Aboriginal Cape York took him to Aurukun and Napranum. ... He met elders at Napranum, joined a yarning circle in Aurukun and watched traditional dancers at Beagle's Camp summit grounds. (Illawarra Mercury, 7 August 2003)
Yarning circles encourage listening and understanding through the sharing of ideas and experience:
They are men that similarly struggle with their identities through drugs, alcohol and abuse. Smith isn't a social worker and doesn't profess to be one. He listens if they want to talk around the yarning circle. (Campbelltown Macarthur Chronicle, 7 June 2005)
Although they are most often found in Indigenous contexts, yarning circles are now also held in the wider community, such as in schools:
Every day, in every class, the school utilises the Aboriginal cultural custom of a yarning circle to start the day…. The Champion witnessed a year 4/5 yarning circle on Wednesday with one pupil sharing how he was happy that his cast was now … off his arm, while another was sad because they didn't get enough sleep.… ‘Kids come to school with different stories. We don't know … what is happening in their lives, so it is all about making those connections’. (Liverpool City Champion, 7 February 2018)
A recent development is the creation of yarning circles as a part of the built environment: ‘New carpet had been laid in the library … and an outdoor yarning circle had been completed.’ (Dubbo Daily Liberal, 11 May 2020)
Indigenous circle and dialogue circle are other names for the same or similar concepts. However, yarning circle is the best-known term for a gathering that promotes equality and mutual respect.
Yarning circle will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.