The rules change as you get older. My parents always told me, “Never talk to strangers,” and that is still excellent advice for the young. But now my abiding rule, wherever I go, is always talk to strangers. In fact, don’t miss an opportunity to chat with someone you don’t know and might never meet again.
If you’re open to it (and receptivity is key), then you can brighten your daily life with delicious sprinkles of conversation.
Oh yes, I can hear you saying you’re just not the type to chat with people you don’t know, that you’re too busy going about your business to waste time with a verbal quickie. Believe me, I get it. I don’t even like talking to most of the people I know. I rarely use the telephone for conversation, and am most content in silent mode. So I do understand the reluctance to engage in random exchanges.
Maybe you don’t know how to do it.
Try commenting to someone standing next to you on a line somewhere. I asked one woman where she got her haircut, and we barely took a breath for five or six minutes, zooming from haircuts to new recipes for riced cauliflower and broccoli, and eventually to the fact that her hair was a wig and she’d just had her last chemo treatment.
On a walk around the block, I said good morning to a gardener, and we talked for a few minutes about the best types of chrysanthemums and, eventually, the flowers in his village in Guatemala. And his grandchildren there.
People do have stories.
If you’re on a plane, or a train, or just wandering in the market, look up. Just say something, and the other person will probably pick up your bid. If you walk a dog, you automatically talk to everyone who passes by.
I know I feel freer as an older woman to make the first move; no one is going to misinterpret my friendliness. I also don’t care if the other person is too preoccupied with his or her phone or just preoccupied. I move on.
What I love about strange mini-encounters is that they are brief, self-contained and confer no obligations. I learn something, or just enjoy the experience of making contact. So many devices and activities pull us away from other people. Reaching out is fast, easy and cheap, and it just feels remarkably good to have a bit of unexpected conversation with someone you didn’t expect to meet.
Now, granted, not every encounter is a winner. But I had an experience this week I want to share. I met an old dude at the puppy park where Lilly Bee and I went for exercise. All I said was, “Hi.” He said, “Call me Grandpa Phil. I’m 91.” He looked ancient, a tall, shambling man who could barely keep up with his geriatric dog. He had dark marks all over his twisted hands, and something was wrong with one eye.
All I said was, “Hi.” He told me he’d fought in Okinawa during World War II and then, when he came home, worked for U.S. Steel and helped build the Verrazano Bridge. That was the most interesting thing anyone said to me that day.
I asked him how many dogs he’s had in his long lifetime, and he told me, “2,800.” OK, I thought, he’s a wackadoodle, but he’s entitled to his state of mind — whatever it is. “Yes,” he said. “I raced in the Iditarod in Alaska for years, and I still go back to volunteer. I already have my reservations for March.”
For the uninitiated, the Iditarod is a 1500-mile, two-week-long dog sled race, from Anchorage to Nome in the bitter cold of March, with temperatures dropping to 60 below. Dogs die along the way; so do mushers. It is a killer of a race. It traces the famous dog sled race to deliver diphtheria antitoxin during the epidemic of 1925. I knew this.
I looked at the man and wondered how his mind had wandered so far. “Did you have other adventures?” I asked.
“Yup, I climbed Kilimanjaro when I was 68 years old,” he said, “and did K2 in the Himalayas.”
“Really,” I said, humoring him a bit. “You’ve lived quite an adventurous life.”
“Yup,” he said. “Sit here a minute.” And he went to his car and got his iPhone and proceeded to show me dozens of photos from his trips to Alaska. There he was, bundled up, mukluks and all, on the frozen tundra outside Anchorage.
The black marks on his hands? From frostbite. And the eye? Lost to frostbite. I looked him up when I got home, and it’s all true.
Imagine if I hadn’t said, “Hi.”
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at email@example.com.