Sunday, November 8, 2009

Stranger connections - the lost art of being kind for kind's sake alone

My friend Beth posted something on her Facebook page yesterday that went something like, " Why are strangers so surprised when you do something nice?". Great question, but sad. I've started a little experiment of late, I make a point of starting a REAL conversation with people I don't know just because. Not the "how are you?" lame question when you don't really care about the answer. One of my faves is, "How's your day going?". It's revealing to check out the way people respond. Or sometimes, "How's your life?".

I do it when I call restaurants to make reservations, or when I get my coffee at Starbucks. The majority of people have no idea how to answer, and some actually freak a little bit out. But on occasion there will be some who love it, and really want to talk, and engage. From those people I have learned a lot of new things that I would not have otherwise. The sad truth of it is we have lost the art of conversing with people we don't know. I mean real conversing, not the basics that are required to fill an order, reserve a table, or drop off a car for service. Conversation about the world at large, not related to the task at hand.

As the world gets larger, it actually gets smaller if we don't reach out and push our comfort zone, or spend a little extra time connecting with the person next to us. We are losing the opportunity to be exposed to different points of view, or new ways of thinking about life. I do it in line-ups too, and that is the best! The person behind me who I strike up a convo with can't get away. They either love it and we pass the time in ways neither of expected, or they hate it and I am the crazy woman who started talking to them about nothing. Fun!

When I thought about Beth's post yesterday, it took me back to an experience I had earlier this year at a CVS pharmacy, and the collateral damage to people's self esteem this kind of disconnected world we live in can cause. I can't re-create what happened better than just quoting directly from my journal, so here goes:

"Jan. 5, 2009

Tonight at CVS we picked up Pam's Nexium prescription and bought some Christmas ornaments for next year. I saw a security guard that made me sad. She was a white-haired, short, round, overweight woman wearing her jacket with its "American Private Security" with pride. She had on a camo hat, the kind the with fuzzy flaps that come down over the ears. She stood in line in front of us, a one dollar bill in hand to buy a snack pack of fried pork chips.

As she approached the til she spotted a penny on the floor, which she clamped her big boot on and dragged it up to the counter with her. Then she spotted another one, and bent down to pick them both up before heading back outside into the cold night to lean against a lamp post in the parking lot and eat her fried pork chip dinner.

We passed her as we drove away. She dipped her head in a nod to me, then looked away quickly - almost as if she was shielding herself from the painful possibility that I wouldn't acknowledge her back."

How sad. I think it will only continue down this path of disconnectedness, but man oh man it's fun to try and stop the slide.


  1. I found this very interesting and it cause me to reflect on my own behaviour with conversational strangers like you.

    I tend to be one who 'freak(s) out a little bit' when a total stranger chats me up. I will tend to just give a cursory answer about 'the task at hand' and retreat into my own space.

    I think you are right about having lost the art of conversation... I simply don't have the skills to converse with a stranger. I admire your positive and outgoing nature Teri, and I am going to think about this post next time a stranger offers an opportunity to engage. Who knows, one day I may even open a stranger connection of my own!

  2. This hits close to home. I'll occasionally chat people up in line when I'm feeling well or in a good mood. But if I'm having a bad day, I don't make eye contact to discourage strangers from engaging; I just want to take care of business and get out of there. On the other hand, when things are going well, I'll hit someone in line with idle conversation about a shared experience and sometimes it goes OK, but most times not. Some people just aren't into it and feel I'm invading their space or perhaps they think I have some other unctuous motive. It's disturbing at times. I do like, however, to sometimes surprise people because I'm so obviously ethnic (Asian) with no hint of being bi-racial -- that it doesn't always register to some listeners (not all) that I'm speaking perfect, unaccented English.

  3. When I was a kid, a friend of the family used to take me with her on little adventures. We'd go on motorbike rides through corn fields, tour through abandoned buildings, and visit colourful places. Some of those places were half-way houses where this person's friends lived. I remember meeting all sorts of people and having dinner sometimes in a large kitchen filled with picnic type tables and bench chairs (a soup kitchen?) Everyone knew her, and loved seeing me. Growing up I was always taught to not judge people, to 'walk a mile in someone's shoes' and that love was the most important thing.

    We tend to connect with people we feel equal to, I think. But the fact is that we are all equal, valuable and relevent to eachothers lives. I've had amazing, thoughtful and remarkable conversations with strangers. A mature woman told me she was pregnant before she had discussed it with her family in a bank line up. A man told me he was going back to his drug addiction, so he could be with his girlfriend. The drug addiction he'd kicked was better than being lonely.

    It's scary though and I don't do it all the time. Like the other person who posted, it's easier when you're feeling positive. You have to have enough of your own energy to share a little of it with someone else.

  4. Wow - I had no idea what my innocuous little FB post would generate. This is the 3rd blog that I follow that has commented on my post - which involved offering to move from a large table to a smaller one. No big deal - but the waitress was amazed I would do that for total strangers (as were the total strangers!)
    I chat with people in lineups, crowds, parks - doesn't matter where. I try to avoid the obvioulsy dangerous to talk to people ( the ones that yell angry dijointed statements) but apart from that, anyone is fair game.
    I would like to know where and when it became so important to keep to ones self - and when all strangers became bad?