In the old days, when I would spend a lot of time on planes, I would go to great lengths to avoid talking to my fellow passengers. As soon as I was ensconced in my seat, headphones would swiftly land on my ears or my nose would dive in a book – everything about my body language screamed “Don’t even think about talking to me”. Who knows, maybe I was under the impression no one could have as interesting a life as me.
The truth is, people want to talk to me. I haven’t figured out if I inspire trust, openness or if I simply look like a good listener but perfect strangers are willing to tell me intimate or personal stories about themselves at the drop of a hat. Whether it’s in line somewhere public, random customers I come across at work or vague acquaintances, they all chat. And it’s mostly people I am not likely to see again.
Italians are masters at striking up casual conversation wherever they find themselves, mostly out of boredom I think, as so much of our time is tied up waiting: at the bank, the post office, the grocery store, we might as well pass the time talking to fellow humans. But Americans, as friendly as they can seem, are usually more guarded. Yet, they will talk to me. There are times when I really do not care, like today, when a customer and his wife found it in their heart to tell me all about the house they used to live in. But, most of the time, I am intrigued by people’s willingness to vent, tell stories or reveal details about themselves. I am intensely curious and maybe my curiosity shows. What I have learnt through endless conversations is the following:
1. Whether we have a PhD in Philosophy or ended our educational career in 4th grade, we are all the same. The only difference might be in how we express our emotions.
2. People need human contact, even if it comes in the form of talking to a stranger. And it takes so little of our time to listen to the old lady’s dinner plans at the grocery store. I will have forgotten all about it in 2 minutes but she will be all warmed up by my interest (feigned or real)
3. People like to brag, especially if fact checking is not an option. I don’t mind, if it helps with their self-esteem.
4. It’s often said that it’s easier to reveal difficult conundrums to strangers because of their lack of judgement. I think it’s more a case of not wanting to be called on our bullshit, like a close friend, with most facts at hand, would.
5. Every single person has an interesting story, an unexpected life or a detail that will make your jaw drop. All you need is a little bit of digging.
Come to think of it, blogging is the ultimate form of talking to strangers, with the added advantage of being able to tune out with just one click. So, what does it make me in this equation?