But you ignore them
The flight was turbulent, and I was fairly new to air travel. With each bump and strain of the jet engines, my heart lurched and I felt a sense of dread.
I was flying to a convention of editorial cartoonists in Minnesota. Excited as I was to hang out with other cartoonists, the rough flight put me in a state of high anxiety.
There was a calm looking fellow across from me, who could tell I was a white knuckle flier.
“Don’t fly much?” he asked with a smile.
“No, this is my third flight, ever. I don’t like heights, and I hate turbulence!” I gripped the armrests on my seat tightly.
“If you like, I might be able to help a little,” he said. “Give me your right hand.”
Happy for any distraction, I complied.
“I’m a massage therapist and specialize in pulling out negative energy,” he said as he began kneading his thumbs into the palm of my hand. “Just try to relax, breathe, and feel the stress work out.”
Being a fairly pragmatic guy, I was skeptical of anyone claiming mystical abilities, but I went along with it anyway.
The guy started to work on my fingers. As he reached each fingertip, he let go and then shook his hand, as if releasing the negative energy he “pulled out” from each finger.
It was strangely relaxing. He finished and then asked for my other hand, repeating the same process.
“People store so much stress inside themselves, and they don’t know how to get rid of it,” he said. “You have to learn how to breathe better, clear your mind, calm yourself and let the stress work itself out.”
“I think a lot of the stress will disappear when we land,” I said with a smile.
“No, you’ve got other stress in your hands. I can feel it. You need to work on that, too.”
When he said that, I thought about some of the relationships and work-related challenges I was working on. Still not sold on the mystical stuff, I was amazed how much he helped me calm down. And he was right about the other stress in my life.
After he finished the hand massage, we talked for a bit about travel and our work. Before I knew it, we were preparing to land, and I thanked him for helping me out.
Put on our happy face
In this day and age of digital distractions, we tend to disappear into our smartphone screens rather than talk to strangers.
Walk into any coffee shop and look around you. Most people waiting in line are busy scrolling on their phones. Some customers may be engaged in conversation, but many are glued to their laptops and tablets.
People tend to avoid having conversations with strangers, whether in a coffee shop or commuting on public transportation.
Many fear that they’ll say something dumb, or worry that the other person will talk their ear off. In reality, there are many benefits in striking up a conversation with a stranger.
When we talk with loved ones and friends, we often use a sort of shorthand. Our conversations can be more superficial.
Talking with a stranger is different. We tend to behave our best. As an article in the New York Times notes:
“The great thing about strangers is that we tend to put on our happy face when we meet them, reserving our crankier side for the people we know and love. When one of us, Liz, was in graduate school, she noticed that her boyfriend, Benjamin, felt free to act grumpy around her. But if he was forced to interact with a stranger or acquaintance, he would perk right up. Then his own pleasant behavior would often erase his bad mood…”
Talking with strangers can change our perspectives. Meeting people who are not like us is a great way to broaden our views, and shatter some of our biases. And best of all, it enhances our mood.
The ethics of strangers
As the world seems to feel more and more insular and hostile, I’ve found increasing hope and pleasure in talking to strangers. I’ve discovered that people really aren’t that different from one another.
“Our very lives depend on the ethics of strangers, and most of us are always strangers to other people.” -Bill Moyers
When I visit the grocery store, I always make a point to chat with the cashier. Even the smallest of conversations seem to make both myself, and the cashier, feel a little better.
“Looks like you guys are pretty busy today,” I’ll offer.
“Yeah, it gets like this before the weekend,” the cashier replies.
“Bet it makes the shift go by faster, though.”
“Yeah, it really does,” the cashier says with a smile.
“Well thanks very much, I’ll catch you next time,” I’ll say.
What I find is that, on subsequent visits, the cashier and I will remember one another, and often jump right into a new conversation. There’s a sense of familiarity and friendliness, which improves both our moods.
My wife once told me about something she called “Greyhound therapy.” When I looked at her quizzically, she explained:
“You know, when you’re on a bus and you strike up a conversation with a total stranger. And before long you find yourself sharing feelings and thoughts that you maybe never even shared with your closest friends.”
The beauty of strangers is that they don’t know us. We’re free from all pretensions and can engage in a more honest, direct conversation. Sometimes it’s just easier to talk with a stranger, who is not invested in a relationship with you. Also, the feedback you get is likely to be more honest.
“. . .sometimes one feels freer speaking to a stranger than to people one knows. Why is that?”
“Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are.”
― Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
When we express simple pleasantries with strangers like “hello” or “how are you” we are not really asking for an answer. The purpose of the salutation is to acknowledge their presence and humanity. It builds goodwill and a sense of peace and community.
We are brought up to be careful, even fearful around strangers. While it is true that we cannot know the intentions of every stranger, most people we meet are not out to harm us.
The trick is to read the behavior of others more than the categories in our heads. We use categories to simplify how we perceive the world. A guy in a uniform is a “cop.” The stooped over, wrinkled fellow with a cane is an “old man.”
The problem with these categories is that they can become a pathway to bias. Without talking to these strangers, we don’t know what they are really like. And we might just miss out on their wisdom, charm or unique personality.
The “cop” on the corner might be into jazz music as much as you are. That “old man” with the cane might have some advice for you on how to deal with loneliness, or losing your spouse.
Author Kio Stark gave a helpful Ted talk about why you should talk to strangers. As she notes:
“When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life — and theirs.” -Kio Stark
A whole new world
When my son was young, he was riding his bike home from school. Somehow, he lost control of his bike and flew over the handlebars.
As he lay on the sidewalk, a few strangers came running to his aid. They helped him up, asked if he was okay, and checked to see if his bike was damaged. Luckily, only my son’s pride was hurt.
I remember, when he told me about the incident, the sense of pride I felt in my community and the good-hearted people who came to help my son.
As a police officer, I often came to the aid of accident victims. I could always see it in their eyes, even when they were too scared or injured to speak. The look of gratitude. The relief that someone cared. The renewed sense of hope, that perfect strangers look out for one another.
We need strangers in our lives more than we think, but we tend to ignore them. Fear of crime, embarrassment or the unknown keeps us avoiding eye contact. We reach for the distractions of our phone screens.
What if we tried a little harder to interact with strangers? What if we struck up a few more friendly conversations? At the market, coffee shop or bus stop?
Doing so just might open up a whole new world. Every human being you meet is a walking historian of their lives and experiences. You never know what you might learn, or how your own story might inspire them.
Research indicates that interacting with strangers can uplift your mood and improve your day. So the next time you’re at the market or in a line at Starbucks, strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. You might be pleasantly surprised by how good it will make you feel.