This I Believe

Dorothy - New York, New York
Entered on November 8, 2007
Age Group: Under 18
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Conversations With Strangers

I believe in conversations with strangers.

Strangers aren’t always out to get you. Some are actually just interested in getting to know you. Last week, on the 1 train, I was on my way home from volleyball when a man next to me motioned to my gym shorts and asked: “So what do they do in PE at Stuyvesant?”

He laughed when I mentioned square dancing, of which I am a huge fan, and for the rest of the ride we compared his high school gym experience to mine. As the train neared my stop, he extended his hand. “Roland,” he said. “Dorothy,” I answered, giving his hand a shake. He smiled: “See you around.” Stepping off the train, I was fully aware that I probably never would.

I have come to realize that conversations with strangers, like the one I had with Roland, are much more than just words– though their greater significance can be summed up in just one: connection. I like to think of strangers as five-minute friends. And, while they are only the briefest of confidants, they are also some of the best. Their lack of knowledge of your past or present and anonymity of a crowded subway make these rare exchanges a spiritually revealing and almost therapeutic experience.

I don’t mean to say that all conversations with strangers are this way—in fact, I find that much of the dialogue in these conversations is meaningless chitchat. But you never know what another person can leave you with—some piece of imparting wisdom, a feeling of happiness, or a choice of career, as was the case when a middle-aged lady in a department store, after knowing me less than five minutes, informed me that I would become a playwright.

My mother is one of the most friendly and outgoing people I know. She, too, participates in conversations with strangers. But, while I am content to end my interactions with people when one of us gets off the train, it is not unlike her to invite these acquaintances over to dinner. While the Scottish family-of-three were my personal favorites, the 18th St. Station token-booth attendant and the elderly skier are also among those who have made an appearance in my home. Like most parents, my mother never encouraged me to speak with strangers, but observing her friendly and interesting interactions with others have helped me in forming this belief.

If I have children, I will probably urge them to do exactly the opposite of what I have written here. But it is this rare and seemingly random connection between people that gives me a sense of hope for humanity as a whole. Communication problems all over the world today lead to horrible things. But if two complete strangers can make a connection on a crowded #1 train through something as trivial as high school gym shorts, than almost anything is possible.