I still remember when I heard the startling statistic that tollbooth workers have the highest incidence of suicide among professional adults. I cringed remembering all of times I impassively outstretched my arm, dangling a few crumpled dollars in my hand while staring at the red light ahead of me, willing it to turn green so I could be on my way to what I was certain were more important, meaningful moments in my life. I suddenly realized that a tollbooth operator, stranded in isolation in the middle of a highway, experiences the lamentable injustice of having more human contact in proportion to human interaction. That moment—a moment of revelation while speeding down the New Jersey turnpike—was the seed of my personal philosophy: always talk to strangers.
Just last weekend, I was bemoaning my “C” group seat assignment on Southwest Airlines, grumbling internally that I would be stuck in a middle seat between two undoubtedly chatty passengers who would surely interfere with my ability to grade grammar tests. Upon squeezing into my seat and whipping out my purple pen and stack of papers, however, I noted that the young man sitting next to me was smiling off into the distance for what seemed no apparent reason. His smile was infectious and prompted me to remember my mantra: always talk to strangers. I thought, “What do I have to lose?” After all, if I needed to get up to use the restroom, it would be far less awkward if we knew a little something about one another before I stepped over his legs. A few minutes into the conversation about where he went to school, he informed me, to my surprise, that he was blind. I had attributed his avoidance of eye contact to typical teenage awkwardness; had I not initiated the conversation, I would have been met with embarrassment when I would have surely tried to noiselessly climb over him on my way to the aisle. Instead, it was far less uncomfortable for us both when I guided his hand to meet the beverage being passed to him by the flight attendant. So moved was I by the effect of a simple introduction to a stranger, I exited the plane proffering witty remarks and compliments to passengers and pilots alike.
The truth is, I struggle with the implementation of this honorable belief every day. With my ever-increasing reliance on text messaging and e-mail, I have moved inexorably farther away from person-to-person conversation even with those that I know and love well. Still, I strive to battle against the anonymity and introversion that technology leaves in its wake. I try to focus on the ability of conversation with strangers to inform my decisions, enhance my self-confidence, and provide opportunity. Instead of silently shouting, “Stranger Danger!” every time I chance on someone unfamiliar to me, I challenge myself, and I extend my hand, offering a simple invitation to a new opportunity.