Brief Encounters

Brief Encounters

by Mary Jo

As I plow toward finishing my current book, I’m using the Wench option of rerunning an older blog that I think might be interesting to you.  I wrote this blog in 2017 and the theme is how brief encounters with people we meet casually are enriching to both parties and can make us happier and healthier.  This has always been true, but I think it’s even more important now since the pandemic shut down so many communications, and I’m still rebuilding those skills now.


This blog was inspired by an article in my local newspaper about a book called When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You Written by Kio Stark, a writer and teacher, the book is the text of a short TED talk  she gave.

Her basic thesis is that brief friendly interactions with strangers enrich our lives and create a better sense of community.  (This is particularly valuable in a world of people who are glued to their electronic devices!)

The reason the article so delighted me was because I’ve been talking to strangers my whole life.  I come by this habit honestly–my mother did it, my big sister does it, and I do, too.  Not sure if this is genetic or just observation!

Talking to strangers usually leaves me with a smile, but the basic reason I do it is because people are so interesting!  You don’t have to be an extrovert to talk to a stranger–I’m a card carrying introvert.  All you need is a genuine interest in others, and a situation that makes it possible to chat a bit.

One reason the weather is discussed so much is because it’s a neutral topic that everyone shares because as we know that “the rain falleth upon just and unjust alike.”  And we just about all have opinions about the weather!

“Is spring ever going to come?”
“Hot enough for you?”
“Isn’t it gorgeous out today?”

The other person smiles and says “I hope we get more like this!” or “No snow for me, please!” and for a moment, you’re connected.  Talking about weather is a benign, non-threatening way to say “I see you and wish you well.”

I’ve read that every person you’ve ever met has at least one story that will stop your heart, and I suspect that’s true–I’ve heard stories like that though generally they won’t come up in casual conversation.

Happy stories emerge more easily.   One such occurred in the grocery line at my local grocery store.  (A lot of my interactions happen in grocery lines.  I need to get out more.)

At any rate, this was a few days before Christmas and the store was busy.  I had a middling number of items in my cart, so when a woman in the store uniform joined the line with one small item that was clearly intended to be her lunch, I said she could go ahead of me because her lunch break would not be a long one.

She thanked me, and then the next woman ahead of me also invited the employee to move ahead of her.  With good will abounding, the three of us started to chat.  The woman in line ahead of me turned out to be an elementary teacher.

That brought on the topic of kids so the employee started talking about her ten year old son, and we learned that she’d had multiple miscarriages and feared she’d never have a child.  Then at forty she got a call from a hospital saying this infant needed a home, and now he’s hers.  He’s the joy of her life, and she’s a joyous woman.  I’m sure there was more to the adoption end of this, but that was the core of her story.  Lucky baby, lucky woman!  And now when I see her in the store, we smile at each other and say hi.

Most interactions are shorter, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.  As Kio Stark says, you learn when it’s okay to say something casual and friendly, and when it’s not.  The trick is to talk to someone, not at them.  And to be sincere–to mean what you say.

A small compliment that’s genuine can be a real day brightener.  If I see someone (probably at the grocery store) wearing a beautiful necklace, I might say “What a lovely necklace!”  And she smiles and I smile back and for a bright moment, we see each other.

Today I was getting my hair done at my usual place and woman came in with a totally gorgeous golden retriever seeing eye dog named Dolly.  I know better than to talk to a service dog without permission, but the woman and I checked out at the same time, so I mentioned how lovely and patient her dog was, and how surely the dog is a real people magnet.  The owner said yes, when she used to go out with a white cane, people would move out of her way but they never talked to her. Now they talk to her, and to Dolly as well.  (Dogs and babies are total people magnets. <G>)

What about you?  Do you slide into casual chat with strangers?  Have you had memorable brief encounters that brightened your day, or allowed you to brighten someone else’s day?  Mutual brightening?

Please tell me about them!  Because I love listening.

Mary Jo

14 thoughts on “Brief Encounters”

  1. I tend to fall right into a casual conversation with a stranger, especially in stores. It’s a brief connection talking about favorite foods or beverages.

    I do remember giving support to a fellow performer who was being treated badly by another person. We commiserated and bonded, even though we didn’t see each other again. I knew how she was feeling from other incidents in my life.

  2. I used to be in a job that meant I traveled a great deal. On planes, one is a prisoner in a metal tube. So, I seemed to always meet new people. I found out about their families, jobs and at times their dreams and fears. Long ago, during the Viet Nam war, I was on a flight with a young man who was a helicopter pilot who picked up soldiers from “in country”. At times the people being picked up were wounded, or dead. And during the pickups, people might be shooting at all of them. This young man was going home for the first time and he had been drinking. He talked and then he cried and finally fell asleep. I hugged him and tried to provide comfort for him.
    The flight had more than one stop and I was leaving first. And two charming women in front of me, began to insult me, and the young man and anyone connected to the war. They were quite colorful. They did not know it but, my husband was also in service and on a ship in the Pacific. And what worried me most was the young man might wake up and hear all the hatefulness. Those two women were not a warm and fuzzy meeting for me. But, it certainly it was educational. I guess that reminds me that this country is messed up now, but hey, we have been there before and we will come out stronger. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good ….whatever you choose.

  3. What a mixed flight, Annette! It was so good of you to offer comfort to that deeply stressed young pilot, but the women in front of you deserved to have their humanity cards revoked. I’m with young in believing that this country’s resilience will carry us through, but there is a lot of pain in the world now.

  4. Nice topic, Mary Jo. Reading it and thinking about the random people I talk to made me realize that since CoVid, that’s dropped right off.

    And your comment about the golden retriever seeing eye dog made me reflect that the place where I meet most strangers was down at dog park — a large off-lead area where a lot of the locals walked their dogs. Over time, I met many of the same people night after night — meaning evening — when they got home from work and took the dog down to the park. Routine brought us together. Initially we’d talk about our dogs, but as we got to know each other the topics ranged quite widely. Those people became my friends, and when Chloe, my previous dog died, a group of them came around to give me big hugs. It was wonderful. They knew Chloe and understood what a loss she was to me.

    • Anne, I’ve felt the same dampening effect from Covid which is why I thought this would be an interesting blog to rerun. Much as I love cats, I realize that they don’t create the same social opportunities that dogs do! I’m sure your dog walking community members all loved their dogs as much you loved your wonderful Chloe. A community makes it easier to bear such losses.

  5. Yes, I do fall into conversation with strangers, and I’ve had some fascinating conversations. Especially on a recent trip to Hawaii! I talked to a lot of people who were also visiting, and some locals who were walking their dogs. (I was missing my dog, who was boarded at his vet.) For some reason, I ran into a lot of Australians. I don’t know why because they certainly have a lot of beautiful beaches and scenery in Australia!

    • Susan, Aussies are famous travelers, as are New Zealanders! I met lots of them the summer long ago and when a friend and I hosteled around Western Europe. Hawaii is one of the easier place to reach and it’s also the US, which surely makes it interesting.

      I miss my cats when we travel and I’ll chat up any friendly cats I find on a trip. (We have a cat and house sitter in when we travel. My cats adore her.)

    • Kareni, kindness when it is desperately needed is a true blessing. Sometimes even a few words can make a great difference. I hope that young polite didn’t wake up to hear the harpies in the seat ahead of him.

  6. Two things that frequently cause people to start a conversation with me is when I wear one of my brown felt hats (think Stetson/fedora type) or when I’m walking at my local park wearing my binoculars looking at the birds. It really is amazing all the chats I have with people just from those two things.

    I’ve also found that if I walk at the park at the same time each day, I see the same people over and over so we have brief little chats.

    During Covid I had little talks/interactions with lots of people while walking in the park so it didn’t feel like a completely isolating time.. Everyone was very chatty (as in saying Hi) at that time.

    • Conversation hats, Vicki! Excellent. And I know birders love finding other birders. I think Covid made people hungry for brief encounters because we were rather starved for regular human interactions. Strange times.

  7. What a nice post. Very important today when so much of our connections are only on the internet. I really think people who work in jobs that require personal interaction with human beings on a regular basis are the best training for people like me. I’m an introvert, but can take meeting individuals much better than being in a crowd. I used to work in a pediatrician’s office and I seem to gravitate to kids more easily than I did before I worked there. But I’m better now with people in general since working in that job (front desk.)

    I’d like to relate an interaction that was a gift to me, instead of the reverse. When I was in school I worked at the University computer center (they don’t exist in the same way anymore, this was over forty years ago,) I sewed most of my clothes, but I wore what most kids my age wore then…jeans or (smile) overalls. Those were ‘a thing’ back then, and probably just as silly as ripped and holey jeans today. But some people like to embroider them which I did to mine–all kinds of stuff. Anyway I dressed very ‘student like.’ At that building I occasionally met a lady in the hallways going to or from. She was a beautiful woman who dressed so smartly. She was also plus sized as I was and still am. She inspired me to see a person inside me that I wanted to be. Smartly, classically dressed and respected despite my size. I could shop locally but most was out of my budget so I ended up sewing. That pushed me to learn more sewing skills too. Dressing so that you know you look your best is esteem building. It’s not everything in the world, but important. That lady who greeted me occasionally with just a smile and a hello, never looking down on me in my working student clothes influenced me greatly. I hope I have passed that on as often as possible over the years.

    • What a wonderful story, Michelle! That beautiful woman gave you inspiration for life without more than a few smiles and greeting and her own awesome image. And you’ve passed that on for many years now. This is humanity at its best. Thank you for sharing your story.


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