DOWN THE ROAD A PIECE
By Jane Brown
New research shows that talking to strangers is a good idea. I’m happy to hear that. I like talking with strangers. I almost always learn something and it makes me feel more a part of a community. But then I’m an extrovert. I like people.
My husband, in contrast, is an introvert. People wear him out. But even he talks to “strangers” via social media. Many have become his online community. We’ve even made special efforts to meet some of them in person.
These new research findings conflict with the “stranger danger” ethic that began in the 1980s. Remember the milk cartons with pictures of missing children?
Today I find “stranger danger” to be an unfortunate idea. It generates an underlay of fear about the world and about other human beings. It reinforces isolation and insularity. COVID has made it all worse.
I’m happy to be a person “who’s never met a stranger,” thanks to a good role model when I was growing up. My mother, a former journalist, could get anyone talking about anything.
One thing I learned from watching her is that people love talking about themselves. Open-ended questions such as: “Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” “What do you like to do?” will often generate good conversations, especially if you listen to what they say.
Follow up-questions keep them talking. “What do you like about your job / where you live/ what you’re about to do?” Just take it on like a journalist would – draw the person out, express interest in how they see the world.
I am not the first to have tips about how to start conversations with strangers. Check out this website, for example. Many other pages offer starters for specific kinds of conversations, like with a potential love interest or your teenaged children.
For our introverted friends, you may never have to say a thing about yourself, although the tip sheets suggest that sharing a bit about yourself will increase comfort and trust.
Conversations with strangers don’t always go the way you anticipate. Recently, on my first trip in more than a year and a half, my friend and I chatted up the tall young man crammed in the seat next to us. My opening line: “These seats are made for little people like me, aren’t they?”
Luckily, he said he loved talking, especially about his job as a commercial pilot. When a strange noise emanated from the cargo hold, our new friend explained that “the Airbus is notorious for that ‘barking dog’ sound when the engines are distributing hydraulic pressure around the plane. It’s a good thing.” We were relieved.
In the airport on our return trip we talked with a woman who put on a new bejeweled face mask every 10 minutes or so.
“Why?” we asked.
She explained: “I’m not vaccinated. I’m a nurse and I’ve read all the research. No way I’m going to get vaccinated. And, if we have to wear facemasks, at least they can be attractive.”
Later we wished we had learned more about her non-vaxxer reasoning. We thought of possible follow-up questions we could have asked: “Are you crazy?” “You think that facemask is attractive?”
Probably something less confrontational would have worked better, like: “What did you learn from the research that convinced you not to get vaccinated?”
In general, I’ve found talking with strangers fun and rewarding. And I think such conversations will help us feel more a part of our communities and learn more about our fellow travelers. Maybe then we’d be less afraid of each other, more willing to listen to answers we don’t expect, more accepting of other points of view. That seems like a good thing.