Talking to Strangers

I have a really cool friend named Megan.  She lives in California, which has a reputation for being supremely cool.  I guess that makes Megan doubly cool.  Her coolness is due to a whole number of things, primarily her personality, which I will sum up in this sentence she once said:  “I have yet to find anything more interesting in the world than meeting and talking to new people.”  That pretty much describes her – gregarious, outgoing, super-extroverted, fun-loving, adventure-seeking, talkative, and indomitable.  While our personalities are very similar, she’s a concentrated version of me.  (Oh, she’s also a feisty redhead!)

the two redheads

That quote, however, made a deep impression on me.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped to think about it, or found myself in a social setting and wondered what Megan would do.  Well, she’d dive in and try to make as many new friends as possible.  I, on the other hand, talk to a few select people, check out the food, and go back to talking with the same people.  I admire her greatly for having that approach to life.  It’s an incredible gift, I think, to view a roomful of people as fascinating individuals, each with a story to tell, let alone potential best friends.  (Isn’t there a quote that goes something like, “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t yet met”?)

I think we could all learn a lesson from Megan, because the opposite seems to be happening in today’s world.  People are disconnected from each other.  There’s a common reluctance to start conversations, not to mention the physical barriers like headphones that cause one to think twice before interrupting to say hi.  There’s fear for one’s safety; I’ve had a few too many awkward conversations with over-friendly, creepy men on long bus rides, stressing out about how to end it without appearing rude.  There’s possessiveness over one’s precious personal time.  I’m especially guilty of that, to the point where my level of friendliness is directly related to how many hours I must sit beside a person on an airplane: meaning, the longer the flight, the more reserved I am, because I’m simply terrified of getting roped into an eight-hour conversation when all I want to do is sleep!

Once, on a long bus ride from Montreal to Toronto, I had the only remaining empty seat beside me, and just as the bus was preparing to pull out of the station, a huge young guy lumbered on to the bus and bee-lined straight for the seat.  He plunked himself down with a big grin, stuck out his hand, and proceeded to settle himself for a few minutes.  Then he began to burp, silently, though every exhalation permeated the air around us with the distinct smell of half-digested pizza.  I buried my nose in my book, but he kept glancing over.  I knew he wanted to talk.  I read more intensely, if that’s possible.  He smiled at the side of my head.  I could feel his smile burning into my skull.  I read faster.  Then he opened his mouth.  Pizza breath and words spilled out together.

“Whatcha readin’?”

“Oh, it’s a novel called ‘Shantaram’, set in India.”  (Fabulous read for anyone interested, by the way!!!)

“Ha!  I had a buddy who was Indian, wanted me to go over there to visit family.  I said no way, smells too bad over there.”

I stared at him, shocked and enraged.  First he interrupts my reading with his pizza belches, now he’s bashing a country I’m quite crazy about, both in real life and in literature!  I pointedly tell him my perspective on India, remaining sufficiently tactful to withhold the obvious fact that his bodily emissions aren’t exactly making Canada smell that great, either.  At the first available opportunity, he heaved himself out of the seat beside me and went to sit somewhere else.  I only felt slightly bad at the time.

That’s just one example of the slightly unpleasant run-ins I’ve had with strangers, and though I love Megan’s philosophy in theory, you can see how it takes courage to apply it.  You’ve got to be ready for lots of weirdos, in order to meet a few really interesting folks.  You have to be willing to give up your time, because you never know how long or short the visit will be.  I try to remind myself that I don’t always know why I’m striking up a conversation; maybe the other person needs it desperately, or maybe I do, without even knowing it.

Random conversations have led me down all sorts of paths and certainly made my life much richer.  After all, if we stop talking to strangers, how can we ever expand our group of friends, visit new homes, learn new languages, hear funny jokes, meet future loves?  Random conversations are a powerful tool to level society by transcending class differences and reminding us that we’re all the same, all searching for the same thing, which usually can be satisfied by simple human contact in a world that makes it really tough to find.

In retrospect, I feel quite terrible about how I shut down that guy on the bus.  I’d handle it differently now, thanks to Megan’s inspiring influence on me.  I’d make a point of finding out who he is and why he has the perspective he does on India.  There’s got to be a story behind it!  Meanwhile, I continue to think about Megan’s enthusiasm for life and feel hopeful that such people exist.  I want to be more like her.

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7 thoughts on “Talking to Strangers

  1. Hi Katherine,

    This is a super interesting post because I too did something similar to a guy on the bus. But hey we learn every day right? From then, I dreamt of a world without strangers.

    I am currently building an app to make it easier to talk to strangers, and I would love to hear your feedbacks. You can meet new people in real time with great food, to keep this comment short and sweet you can find out more on monstroapp.tumblr.com

    Thank you for making this world a warmer place.

    Cheers,
    Agatha

  2. Very interesting!

    I am pretty outgoing, like your friend Megan, so am always chatting up strangers. I love to meet people. It is… as you say… a chance to meet someone with a story to tell. I met one such person on the MAX train some years back and wrote a story about him for our weekly flash fiction challenges over at Flash Fiction Friday. I ‘stretch’ the boundaries occasionally… not every story I have submitted was fiction. 🙂

    Mass Transit… trains, planes, buses… is a double-edged sword when it comes to meeting people. There are thousands of interesting and harmless souls out there. There are also a lot of “interesting” people out there who are a ‘few Triscuits short of an appetizer tray’… usually harmless, but you really don’t want to share a cross country flight with, let alone a 30 minute trip from SW Portland to NE Portland.

    What you say about random encounters leading you down new paths and making your life richer is absolutely true… we need no better reason than that to strike up a conversation with a total stranger!

    Excellent post, Katherine… I am going to reblog this! Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. well sheesh…. thanks for including me on your blog! Makes me feel special… I hope we get to spend some time together sooner than later. I wish I had someone like you here in Cali! You’re an amazing woman.

  4. First off, may I just say thank you on behalf of myself and my fellow Indians for standing up for us. Too many people have preconceived notions and generalise us too much.

    That said, what you say is very true, we are changing a lot and the lack of time available to us all is a big factor in why we are so disconnected from each other – time is more and more precious and we fill it more and more with mundanities and needless things and have forgotten how to (as the old saying goes:) stop and smell the roses.
    We’ve also forgotten something critical that I find myself permanently shocked at how often I repeat to no discernible effect – life is short. No one wants to hear these things, they’re too caught up in the various races and madness they are lost within.

    I’m quite an introvert by nature and thus quite the opposite of your friend, but make it a point regardless to meet people, to strike up conversation and to try and find people both like-minded and differing – but open minded and interesting to spend time with regardless of view-point. And its been a great practice.

    Nice post and I wish you all the best finding new friends and interesting people to add to your life.
    Oh and regarding the pizza belcher (sorry!), don’t feel too bad, a comment like that at a time like that to an unknown person reading about that very topic betrays a basic ignorance, lack of intelligence, tact and an underlying dislike (or dare I say it, bigotry) which is rarely alterable or pleasant to be around. The fact that your response defending it caused him to leave instead of sit and retort or discuss the matter shows the truth in what I assume because were you in his position you would (I may be wrong here, let me know) either apologise over realising your error or elect to converse and try and prove your point or be proven wrong.

    Cheers!

    1. Thanks for your comment! I have no hesitation whatsoever to stand up for your fellow Indians; I think you have an amazing culture and beautiful country! I can’t stand listening to anyone bash different cultures, especially ones that they do not know or haven’t visited. It seems such a gauche thing to do. As for meeting strangers, few things offer better education than opening your mind to hearing their perspectives on the world. And if I were the pizza belcher, yes, I definitely would have chosen a different tactic than simply walking off!

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