“When you talk to strangers,” writes Kio Stark, author of the TED Talk turned book When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You, “you make beautiful and surprising interruptions in the expected narrative of your daily life. You shift perspective. You form momentary, meaningful connections. You find questions whose answers you thought you knew. You reject the ideas that make us so suspicious of each other.”
We’re especially susceptible to these interactions when traveling, when we’re out of our comfort zone and into the unknown of a new place. That was the case for me last week, when I was visiting a previously unknown place for a few days with my wife. Though I hadn’t yet read When Strangers Meet, I knew it was on hold for me at the library for when I got back, so just the idea of talking to strangers pervaded my time there:
Two of my Uber drivers were very laconic, but two weren’t. We asked Latanya about the craziest rides she’s done: she said she once delivered fried Oreos to someone 12 miles away, which got us talking about the insanity of fried Oreos. And as Edward drove us to the train station, I noticed he had a “Morehouse Alum ’69” badge hanging from his rearview mirror. I said I knew Dr. King went there and asked him what it was like.
It was an unusually cold morning for this southern town, and as I walked down the street a twenty-something dude walking with his friends ducked into a building entrance for just a moment to get out of the biting wind. He reemerged apace with me, huddled and ill-clothed for the temperature, and said “Damn it’s cold.” I said I was from Chicago and was used to it. He showed me the rabbit’s foot he kept on his belt and was stroking just to keep his hands warm. “What you up to?” he asked. Just walking, I said, and asked what he did for a living. He paused and said with a chuckle he makes beats. Anything online? I asked. He said no, then asked if I had a phone number. I laughed uncomfortably. Email? “Yeah,” I said with another chuckle. “Why?” He didn’t say anything, but was still smiling goofily. I told him I was off to find a Dunkin’ Donuts and we parted ways.
I stopped in the main library branch to look around, as is tradition when in a new place. I approached the reference desk and asked the librarians for recommendations of places to see and food to eat. With that oft-reported southern hospitality, they rattled off several sights and restaurants that we ended up going to.
Our flight home was overbooked. We weren’t in a rush to get back home, so we took the airline’s offer of generous flight credit, a free hotel stay, and another flight in the morning. We walked out to the hotel shuttle station where dozens of people were shivering in the surprising night cold and waiting for their shuttle. A woman next to us asked if our flight had been canceled. We told her about the deal and she said she and her boyfriend had done the same thing. She asked what we’d been doing there. Business and pleasure. They were really friendly and were going to the same hotel, but once we got onto the crowded shuttle we didn’t talk again.