Recently I saw an article in the Sunday feature section of the 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; you can listen to it here directly.
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.
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!" 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."
But one of the best things about talking to strangers is their stories. I once 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.