Speaking with Strangers

My ears pricked up. Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current was interviewing New York writer Kio Stark on her new book, When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You (TED Books, 2016). Stark was saying that the world needs more of strangers talking to each other, more random conversations on the street, in the shops, on transit.

It occurred to me that I shared her philosophy, and that talking with strangers helps make The Effervescent Bubble thrive. Without even waiting to actually read the book, I ordered twelve copies from Indigo to give as gifts for Christmas.

As an aside: Have you noticed how easy it is to shop on the internet these days? Click, add to cart, pay with the credit card, and forget about it. A few days later, often free of charge, Canada Post delivers a bright clean new cardboard box to the doorstep. Do you get the same frisson of excitement when the time comes to open the box? It’s like Christmas all year.

Getting back to Kio Stark: When the book came, I was keen to devour it. Stark writes, “Talking to people I’ve never met is my adventure. It’s my joy, my rebellion, my liberation. It’s how I live,” and her words resonate. That’s what I do. That’s what I like doing. Why? Perhaps because, as she writes, “when you talk with strangers, 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.” Hers is a book “about talking… about seeing, listening, and being alert to the world.”

As much as I agree with Stark’s approach, her tone is didactic and, on first reading, seems a bit self-helpish. Her approach is analytical, somewhat clinical in nature, with suggestions for what to do, how to do it, and exercises to begin.

Many of her examples and discussion come from a course on communications and modern technology which she teaches. Her comparison between conversations in person and on the internet is intriguing but relevant primarily to social media types. She understands the violence implicit in “street harassment” and calls for action against “aggressive street behaviour.” She is conscious of “stranger danger” as a product of “childhood training,” but makes the point that “unpredictable and unpleasant are not by definition dangerous,” and how we need “to perceive, not… name or categorize” or stereotype.

Her essential point is that talking with strangers is “good for you.” “You are awake… you’re not in your own head, you’re not on autopilot from here to there. You are present in the moment. And to be present is to feel alive. You are also connected.” The action of speaking with strangers, meeting strangers, pushes us to see others as individuals and can be transformative to the person, and to society more generally. We become more empathetic and “cosmopolitan,” which she defines as “tolerant, open… curious and (believing) that we are all in this together.”

In her chapter “The Mechanics of Interaction,” Stark writes about how some cultures “take extraordinary measures not to interact at all.” She cites Toronto as an example, “though not other places in Canada.” She has been told that “strangers in Toronto talk (or mutter) to each other only when necessary, and with the tacit understanding that it’s painful for all involved. ‘Excuse me’ is a last resort on the streetcar.” I know that my west-coast volubility is a little unusual. A Toronto-born travelling companion once told me that I “could talk with a newel post,” which I am not sure she intended as a compliment.

I have often felt that native-born Torontonians are hesitant to talk to strangers, although not in the dog park, nor in a shop. If the stereotype is true, it is changing. The majority of people who live in the city do not come from Toronto; so many were born elsewhere, either in Canada or abroad.

The techniques described by Stark, when I think about it, are simply second nature to me. Talking about dogs and babies is an excellent entrée to learning about people in the neighbourhood. Compliments are conversation-starters. Many different young people, and even a memorable older woman my own age, have taught me about my smartphone and how I can download apps or text numbers to find out when the next transit vehicle will come. Newcomers to Toronto have told me their migration stories, and provided the grist for yet another post on my blog. I can attest that my talking with strangers, even in Toronto, is generally well-received.

I remember how it was a total stranger on the Paris RER  (transit system), in 1966, who suggested that Grenoble welcomed students and I could find accommodation there cheaper and more quickly than in Paris. I had spent several days looking for a cheap place in Paris and was on my way back from spending a horrible night in a decrepit student hostel in the far southern suburbs that I remember for its high ceilings, broken windows, and dormitory beds like those in war movies. I went to the train station right away, bought a ticket to Grenoble, and was welcomed there by volunteers greeting foreign students. A day later I had a job, room and board with a wealthy industrialist just outside the city, and was registered as a student in a university program there. I spent four months in Grenoble, and had an excellent experience with a very interesting family. That stranger on the RER did me a big favour.

Read the book. Listen to Kio Stark’s TED Talk at TED.com. Try talking with strangers, and see what happens. I think the stereotype about taciturn Torontonians, if it really is true, will not long endure.

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3 comments

  1. Sharon

    I agree Marion. Talking with you for the 1st time on a walk with Lori Myers was such a memorable experience and so rewarding in so many ways, not least of which is knowing about and looking forward to your next excellent blog! YAY strangers!

  2. Doug

    I really enjoyed the insight your article “Speaking with Strangers” provided. I agree whole heartedly with the value/benefits of speaking with strangers and it was nice to hear them articulated so clearly. It brought the benefits to my conscious mind.
    Thanks Marion, best, Doug F

  3. Marlene

    Thanks, Marion, So nice to be retired and feel able to invest the time in speaking with strangers and others. Not always easy for people rushing from one activity or commitment to another, which I still frequently find myself doing even in retirement!

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