I’m tired of the conventional piece of advice that adults tell their children: don’t talk to strangers. I think people often take it too seriously as they grow older. You’d be surprised what you could learn from the people you sit next to on the bus. A large group of people with very unique perspectives and experiences to share seems like the perfect place to make a new acquaintance, and yet most of us take the trip in silence. Few ever speak to the people around them on a bus, and in neglecting to do so, they miss out on the opportunity to hear another’s story. I believe that we should all spend more time talking to strangers.
I first started getting into real conversations with strangers when I was thirteen. I was flying on an airplane by myself for the very first time, and I had forgotten to pack the modern world’s favorite distraction—my iPod—into my carry-on luggage. A woman sitting to my left asked me something about my Beatles tee-shirt, and before I knew it we had a conversation going. She was a baby-boomer who had grown up in the same neighborhood as my parents in New York. Before I de-boarded the plane I had learned by her first-hand accounts about the counter-culture movement in the sixties, of the anti-Russian sentiment of the 1950’s, and, with added emphasis, of the development of rock and roll. Though I can no longer remember her name, I remember that I was inspired by our conversation to start talking to strangers.
Now when I sit down on a bus, in a café, or at a park, I try to imagine that the people around me, whatever their true reason for being there, have come to that specific place to teach me a specific lesson. Last week an old man taught me about compassion through the story of his experience in the Korean war as we sat waiting from the bus. A few weeks before that, a middle-aged El Salvadorian woman explained to me the importance of forgiveness as she told me about her childhood while I looked after my three-year-old neighbor in the park. Everyone has a story to share. The world is your school, and everyone in it can be your teacher.
When talking to strangers, obviously one must be realistic, and not give out personal information, but on the whole I think that people are too suspicious of one another. Perhaps if we turned off our distractions and opened up our ears more often, we could make our communities more open to displays of human kindness. Perhaps if we narrowed the amount of time we spend with our eyes staring resolutely at our toes we could broaden our perspectives. And perhaps, just perhaps, if we spoke more to strangers we would take a more optimistic view of the human race.
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