Talking to Strangers

One day this past month I woke up and realized I have become someone who talks to strangers. I am not sure how or when this happened, but I must admit I am shocked.

Perhaps spending my college years in the Midwest has had a delayed effect on me. Maybe it is something about not living in the New York area and having lived in the same community of Boston for almost three years. Either way I am surprised to share that I really actually enjoy these chats.

Instead of pretending I don’t notice when I see someone in the gym at work and then am going to the same floor in the elevator I strike up a conversation with this woman. Soon we are new friends and I am being asked to stop by this staff member’s office to say hello. Or while waiting in a shop for the salesperson to ring me up I am chatting about what a beautiful day it is and how I had to talk a break from work to go for a walk.

Who is this person? I remember being shocked during my time at college in Wisconsin when you would be browsing in a store and the salesperson would simply want to chat with you. They were not doing it so you would buy something or because they were crazy (East Coast mindset), but they actually wanted to hear what you had to say.

I think there is real pleasure to be gained from just connecting with another person. However, small or pointless the conversation, we all deep down want to be acknowledged. No matter who we are we all can recognize certain shared emotions and experiences like waiting in a long line together, enjoying a beautiful day, or being lost trying to find an office in a large building.

Community has been something I have noticed a lot lately and seems like something so underrated we barely think about it. I so treasure the neighborhood I live in because it is such a community. One day last week became my neighborhood day and I made a point to notice this community I was a part of.

In the morning, I took my laundry to the Laundromat with the slightly crazy worker (lets call him Vince) who will chat your ear off. He knows every regular and their wife, husband, kids, or dogs. He will tell you about his life experience and you cannot leave even if your laundry is done. Shaun finds my relationship with Vince humorous because in addition to being slightly crazy he is also sexist. I decided there is absolutely no point explaining to him that this attitude he learned where he grew up (abroad) is sexist, yet I will not give into his sexist assumptions about me cooking dinner or doing the laundry. I try to politely make a stern comment with a smile, but he just doesn’t seem to notice. Even though there are days I will go to the farther Laundromat that does not have anyone working to avoid being trapped into a conversation I still realize Vince makes up our community. On snowy days, cold days, or warm sunny days you can frequently find him standing in front of the Laundromat greeting people on their way to work.

On this same day I noticed neighbors talking on the street. I have two favorite dogs that live in my neighborhood that I have noticed after living here for three years and am always keeping an eye out for them on the street. One used to live in the apartment across from us and I swear he recognizes me when we are on the same block.

While waiting for my laundry I stopped in a coffee shop for a tea and to read my newspaper. This activity that felt quant and appropriate on a simple neighborhood weekday morning. A rabbi and and a lawyer were sitting there (no this is not the start of a joke) and the person working at the counter asked where the rabbi had been because she hadn’t seen him in awhile. They were talking about what all good local Boston rabbis and lawyers chat about – Whitey Bulger. They seemed to be two individuals who just frequented this coffee shop at the same time and were keeping tabs on each other’s work.

How nice to know that if you veered from your normal morning routine someone would notice and miss you. When I studied abroad in Buenos Aires I went to the same “kiosko” everyday for water and snacks. The owner and I never really spoke – mainly because small talk is much harder in a different language and I was an insecure twenty year old – but I wondered if the man working there ever thought about what happened to me when I never showed up again.

My reputation for being someone who could “talk to anyone” and immediately become friends preceded me actually recognizing that this was a part of my personality. Can our personalities really change this much? I imagine if you asked each member of my family whether I would like to talk to strangers 99% would say I would be more likely to give a reflex eye roll than partake in random small talk. I didn’t think I was someone who really enjoyed people and when I lived in NYC would often groan about “hating everyone.”

Some of my favorite people in the world are Midwesterners who are just so truly loving and kind in their ability to see each individual as someone they could chat with or maybe become friends with. I guess I thought I liked this so much previously because it seemed so different than who I was. Instead I must have always had an appreciation for their ability to connect with others.

I would suggest that everyone, even people who would claim they do not like people  embrace this sense of community (warning label for those people living in New York City where you will look like a lunatic for making small talk with some person in a rush).  I am sure there are studies on how we need community, etc. which I never would have taken seriously until I realized that being a part of a community and connecting with people has actually brought me joy. These little sources of happiness are so important in a long winter when I imagine three quarters of the people living here are struggling with depression.

In my job we frequently hold events with lots of random people from the community. I was trying to explain to the ten interns I supervise about the importance of talking to strangers and how it is a wonderful skill to have in their careers. One of them laughed and pointed out that I had just erased the most frequent advice one receives as a child to not talk to strangers. While I would like to stick with the concept of never accepting candy from strangers, perhaps it is time we all unlearned this childhood advice.




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