Chris Oliva

Why I Go Out Of My Way To Talk To Strangers — And You Should, Too

There is so much life that exists outside of our safe space. A safe life is not living, it’s existing.

Have you ever made eye contact with someone on public transportation and felt unsettled? Unsettled because the person you are looking at appears intimidating. Yeah. This man had a stone face: His face was mute of affection, friendliness, and warmth. On top of that, he was large and carried a big, black bag. As a young woman still fairly new to San Francisco, at 10 p.m. waiting for the BART, my inner New Yorker kicked in.

As I walked down the platform past the man, he did something that shocked me — he moved his bag off the bench so I could sit. He just didn’t want to see me on my feet. As I sat next to him, what appeared to be a cold exterior from 5 to 10 feet away, up close, was actually the face of a tired man from a long day and perhaps a harder life. I could see the fine lines in his face. Each line looked as if it carried wisdom, and for some reason I wanted to know this man’s story. It was scary, but eventually I gathered the courage to ask him, “If you could go back to being 20, what advice would you give to yourself?”

His face softened, and he welcomed me into his younger years. He opened up about his foolishness, his mistakes, his regrets, his pain, his hope for me. Bobbie, that’s his name. Bobbie told me, “Plant seeds you can harvest.” Before he got off the train, he let me know he believed in me.

Until then, I never imagined that a conversation on a train platform and train ride could be personal and meaningful. (Meeting this man on public transportation is important. It’s important because, unlike with networking or social events, there is no safety net of familiarity and there is no personal agenda prompting you to pursue a conversation.) He could have hoarded his life experiences out of shame and hoarded his wisdom out of selfishness, but he gave that information away freely. Even though he did not know me, Bobbie shared his life in hopes that I would do better.

That encounter was moving, so I kept asking that same question — perhaps a hundred times to others I met on the street, on the train, or in a Lyft car. It surprised me that most of the time these strangers were so engaged and so open. We didn’t just exchange words, we exchanged stories, knowledge, compassion, and understanding (in some of my friendships, which are years long, we still haven’t broken past the superficial layer completely).

The wonder I have found talking to strangers is that, for a few minutes or hours, I had to somehow care about someone whose existence meant nothing to me moments before. I had to listen unconditionally and immerse myself in their lives. Even if a story did not strike a deep nerve, I have always walked away fulfilled. I intimately connected with the world — not just my personal circle. After the conversations end, it became the beginning of a new challenge. Most important, I had to ask myself, what will I do with the story that was given to me? What can I take away from it? Will I discard it? Will I hold it close to me as I move forward? Will I pass it to someone who needs that story or wisdom more than me? Will I use it to tackle a problem that needs to be solved? These questions pushed me to become a more active participant in my life.

The combination of overprotective parents, friends, news reports, and social norms teach us that strangers should be feared — that we shouldn’t talk to them. Eventually “don’t talk to strangers” slowly translates into "negatively judge the unfamiliar." For years I found myself building a great wall to keep strange people, ideas, and lifestyles far away from me. I guarded myself for the sake of safety. Now, I believe we should use common sense in our interactions; nonetheless, there is so much life that exists outside of our safe space. A safe life is not living, it’s existing. The day I stopped being so comfortable distant from others was the day I joined humanity.

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