November 25, 2011

Talking to Strangers

Here in the States, we just celebrated Thanksgiving, a national holiday which centers around an enormous meal meant to share with friends and family. The meal is supposed to remind us that we have much for which we should be thankful, and serves as a chance to see some people once a year. After all that family and friend interaction, let's take a moment to be thankful for the opposite: talking to strangers.

No way - you met Sponge Bob?!
Any self-respecting parent will ingrain the maxim "don't talk to strangers" into their children. For good reason; children are naive and easily tricked, which presents a problem if the stranger has malicious motives. With age and experience comes maturity and the ability to read character. At this point, I would encourage every one to start conversations with the people next to you.

Sure, some people will clearly not be in a chatting mood, and some days neither am I. Often enough, though, a surprisingly good exchange will result. You'd be surprised at what people know about and want to tell you. A few recent examples from my life: how to buy a sailboat, the finer points of bocce ball strategy, profit margins on buying fake electronics in China and selling them in Miami.

This works in foreign countries and is a great way to practice a new language. I had a very nice chat (50-50 English and Korean) with a South Korean (SK) cab driver about North Korea (NK). Like many of the older generation in SK, he believed everyone is Korean (no North or South designation) and for that reason force should not be used to deal with NK. He asked me to tell Obama to leave NK alone; I'm still working on getting some face time for him.

Sometimes things get a little heavier, and people will open up about past relationships, dealing with depression, addictions and other things that you would normally never tell anyone. I call this the "stranger effect": unloading a personal burden by telling someone you'll never see again your problems. It's like a modern day confessional booth.

After several years of chatting people up, I can say the key to a good conversation is listening. If you pay attention, you can ask insightful questions, and that shows you care. The resulting rapport is the bridge over which strangers will send their information, and with that information comes a better understanding of that person (assuming no lying). That empathizing leads, in its own small way, to a better understanding of the world in which we live--something we could all stand to do better.


  1. I want a dog like that hahaha, great blog! followed!

  2. I don't talk to many strangers, but I talk to cabbies whenever I'm in one. They always have the best stuff to talk about

  3. It seems like I always get chatted up by people when I'm standing in line at the bank, it's like clockwork. You're right though, listening is crucial when it comes to having a good conversation.

  4. Also, LOL at your labels for this one haha.


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