By Heidi Stevens
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Heidi Stevens shares the letters she has received from readers about talking to folks you don’t know.
Who’s in the mood for a little unity?
Recently I wrote a column about the power of talking to strangers, inspired in part by author Kio Stark’s new book, “When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You” (Simon & Schuster), and in part by Georgetown University student Oneil Batchelor, who made a point to get to know the workers who toil anonymously on campus.
Many of you wrote to me about talking to folks you don’t know and how those conversations enrich your life. Here are a few of your notes, edited for length and clarity.
I’m 65, and as far back as I can recall, I’ve talked to strangers. Waiting in lines, on trains, in doctors’ offices, anywhere. In one case, at a concert to see a renowned roots musician, I even lent my glasses to an older gentleman sitting next to me. We became friends, and he invited me to a song circle he belonged to. I’ve returned whenever I get the chance. Not everyone, of course, is going to open up and share whatever you may wish to share, but in all that time of talking to strangers, I can’t remember one time when I was rebuked.
Thank you for your reminder of how important it is to connect with strangers. I live in a small community in Mexico during the winter. Since I speak very little Spanish, I don’t know a lot of details about the guards, restaurant workers and maintenance personnel. I am going to suggest that each week we find out more about the workers and their families and post it to our community Facebook page. I would like to know more about how I can help their families, especially their children. The story about the Georgetown University student really resonated with me, as it did with you.
I’m starting a New Year’s resolution right now. My new goal is to say something nice to someone I don’t know at least once every day. Reading about Oneil Batchelor reminded me of “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich. The author worked as a hotel maid, waitress, house cleaner and other low-wage jobs and tried to live on her earnings. While I always knew it was hard to survive on a minimum-wage job (I volunteer at the food pantry every Wednesday, so I get to meet a lot of people who are trying to do just that), this book was an eye-opener. It should be required reading in every high school, so our future leaders will have a better understanding of those who are struggling to support their families, and for every politician who thinks we don’t need to raise the minimum wage. After reading this book, I have tried to go out of my way to acknowledge people who do some of those invisible jobs. Every time I stop to talk to these workers, they all are so appreciative of someone recognizing their work. It’s such a small thing on my part. My hope is that it makes their day a little brighter.
I showed my wife your article on talking to strangers, in defense of my habit of doing that. I fall short of Stark’s more affirmative model, but I often talk to dog owners or parents of little kids. Both seem to enjoy the interaction, and what mom does not like to hear that her kid is cute? A few seconds can make someone happy, at least briefly, and that in turn makes you feel good. A couple of minutes spent talking with your waiter or waitress often opens up interesting conversational doors. That experience with our waiter (recently) led to a great description of the beer he recommended and why its flavors would match the meal I had ordered, and then to what he was doing to advance his career, he was taking the sommelier tests, apparently a very difficult process. It personalized the experience for both sides.
That is exactly one of the nice things happening since we moved into the Chicago area from the suburbs. We stayed in a friend’s place in Old Town during the summer while our place got rehabbed. Immediately people on the sidewalk would greet me as I walked around. It began the moment we parked our car to unload our suitcases. A gentleman of about 35-40 walked over to us and said, “Let me help,” while he lifted a box out of the car trunk. That was a wonderful introduction to the neighborhood. Another encounter: While I was walking home from the grocery store carrying two bags, “Let me carry that for you,” from a 40ish guy who picked up one of the bags from my hand and proceeded to walk me all the way to our friend’s place, talking about how he has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. Walking in the Lincoln Park area people would remark on the scenery, weather, wonderful city, the color of my shirt, hair style, all to engage in conversation. This was totally new to me.
I found I started to do the same, “Oh what a cute dog!” “What beautiful children you have!” “Can you believe this weather?” When we moved into our condo, the remarks continued on the street and in the elevator. Every day brings an interesting encounter.
As an octogenarian and lifelong Chicagoan, I have always tried to do what your column so aptly suggested. Now that I live in the Loop, there are so many people looking at maps and pointing, totally unaware of where they are. When I approach them and ask if I can be of help, they are so grateful, thanking me profusely. They go on to praise our wonderful city and tell me what a wonderful time they are having. Even if they don’t speak English, I can, most of the time, understand where they are going and be of help, which leads to more conversation. Since being widowed over a year ago, I find these interactions most helpful, for them as well as for me. One comes to realize that the world is a beautiful place, and people are people no matter where they are from.
I’ve been embarrassing my children by talking to strangers for years. And as they’ve grown, I hope they’ve grown to believe there’s a method to my madness. I totally agree that it builds empathy and reduces pessimism. Standing in line at the grocery store. People either picking up magazines to read, looking at their phones or staring down at their carts of food. It feels cold, stiff, mundane. Why not compliment the woman in front of you on her outfit? Suddenly her face lights up, and she smiles and says, ‘Thank you!’ Why not just make someone’s day? If something odd or funny is happening that’s worth commenting on, why hold it in when you can share it with the person in front of or behind you? Suddenly you have a connection and something to nod in agreement about! I’ve had countless fun moments created by talking to strangers. I’ll never stop doing it. It creates unity, softens edges, brightens days and connects me to others.