I was just looking for a quick caffeine fix when I went into the Wellesley Starbucks the other day. Luckily, the unexpected happened.
I stumbled into a conversation with strangers. That just doesn’t occur very often around here in Greater Boston. People pretty much avoid eye contact and saying much of anything to an unknown person unless they’re driving and have cut you off. But on this day, I was lucky enough to start chatting with Jimmy and Jan who recently retired to Panama.
We talked about their kids and grandchildren, my son going off to college, Panama and its blue waters and colonoscopies, of all topics. He was in the franchise business and she was an elementary school librarian.
I learned some things. I got a fresh perspective. And, I had more fun at the coffee shop than I’d anticipated. It’s amazing what happens when you make eye contact, smile and say something nice.
Author Kio Stark says when strangers talk there is a special form of closeness that is as valuable as your relationships with our families and friends. She elaborated in a Ted Talk:
“When you talk with strangers, you are making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of their life and yours. You are making unexpected connections. If you don’t talk to strangers, you are missing out on that.”
It breaks down barriers. When you talk to strangers, you find out about people who may not be like you, who come from different social circles or other locations. You gain a better understanding of them and they gain a better understanding of you. This deeper understanding will be extended to your contacts and theirs so everyone can get along a little better.
Here is another thing to think about: You can get or give advice with strangers in a way that you can’t with those who know you. Maybe it’s because people are more open to sharing a problem with strangers because they don’t expect to see that person again so they feel they can reveal more (although I certainly hope to see Jimmy and Jan again). Or maybe they don’t have the biases of those who know you.
Why don’t we talk to strangers more? Some of it is fear. But often it’s that we don’t want to bother the other person. But guess what? Most people aren’t bothered. In fact, they will appreciate you reaching out. There was a study of people in a waiting room. Some participants were asked to initiate conversations with others. After, they were asked about how they felt about the time in the waiting room. Both those who initiated the conversations and those on the receiving end reported enjoying the time more than those who sat in silence.
So, please take the time to say hello and offer a warm smile. Give someone a compliment. Offer to help. You will have given someone the gift of being recognized as a human and your day will be a little brighter. And, you never know who you might meet.
Thanks to my new friends Jan and Jimmy for giving me their time, their warmth and their kindness.