The Year I Decided to Talk to Strangers

talk-to-strangersWe stood in a long line, empty bellies waiting to be filled, their boyish whistling tunes passing the time. The man in front of us turned and smiled bright; “Your whistling makes me feel brave and like I could whistle in public too.” And he joined them for a few lines.

Someone once told me that only happy people can whistle, and I constantly repeat that to myself when their whistling gets to be a bit much. I shared that sage wisdom with this man, and he laughed. He told me of his five children, the youngest getting ready to head off to pre-med, and he’s cheering her on. His oldest two having just gotten in to PHD programs in bio engineering, and how proud he is of their hard work. His daughter that lives close enough for a quick visit, the sons he misses that live a few states away … how different it is going to be this coming semester with just him and his wife at home – how much they will enjoy being just them, and how much they will miss the bustle of children.

I told him of Paul’s school, of growing up just outside Toronto, of a two week trip to Argentina, where the military has moved us, and our love for our local church that has become family. He told me about his time in the air force and his current career, a pilot, and that this 30 hour layover was the first time he has had time to spend here in our city.

We talked between placing our orders, and awaiting our orders, and then said goodbye and moved on – a solitary man and a mom with two jubilant boys – strangers, and yet not.

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A year or so ago I noticed that while others seemed to ease into conversations with strangers, I lacked that ability – so it has been on the top of my list of personal development skills to work on. As a stay at home mom with a pretty small social life, my goal was to strike up conversations with strangers at the grocery store. Every trip I make myself talk to someone.

It felt silly at first. But the more aware I was, the more I began to realize how much I could learn from strangers in the store. And how interesting these passing fellow humans beings are. And how precious these fleeting interactions with people could be.

I have collected these stories in my journal, happy interactions with complete strangers. Interactions that have touched me in one way or another.

This experiment of mine to talk to strangers has left me with the distinct impression that most people are eager for some form of human contact – a smile, a door held open, a helpful tip they are eager to share, a recent achievement they are bursting to share. I feel like my world is bigger, that I have learned some useful tips, and the world is friendlier since starting to look for opportunities to talk to strangers.

I picked out a few of my favorite grocery store encounters to share – fun interactions that still make me smile with the memory of them.

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We stood in line, him just behind me with arms burdened with groceries while I stood with cart overflowing. If anyone makes me feel intimidate to talk to them it is the pulled together businessman. They’re stoic, serious and are … just scary. I felt compelled to offer him my place in line, but in true professional fashion he waved me off politely and told me I had gotten there first. As if getting somewhere first equals significance. I told him I was happy for him to go first, his arms heavy laden and my cart overflowing. He hesitated, and I ushered him forward. He accepted and eased his arm full onto the conveyor belt. We made small talk as we waited through the line. Pumpkins and quarters and children. As the cashier finished ringing him up he turned to me and smiled. “Thank you for this,” he said gesturing widely, “I needed this.”

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Steel Cut Oats happened to be on sale and I picked up five packages for my ravenous family. At check out the cashier casually mentioned that she had never cooked real oatmeal before – always instant packs in the microwave. I smiled and assured her it was easy to cook real ones. “Really?” she gushed, “because I hate that he is getting instant oatmeal every day but I don’t know what to do about it. Can you teach me?” And so, standing there with cart full and bouncy boys beside me, we ran through the how-to of cooking oatmeal a couple of times. “Wow, I think I can really do this,” she sighed. “I am going to try tomorrow.”
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We bent over the huge box of mangoes, heads bent close together. Him, wrinkled and seeming purposeful in his search. Me, trying to figure out what he was looking for in his mango. He looked up at me, a huge grin across his face. “You don’t know what to look for in a good mango, do you?” he asked, amused. “That is true,” I confessed. “Will you teach me?” A wider grin crossed his face. “Yes, yes,” he said and started to explain the texture and the colors and the smells of a good and a bad mango.
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We were standing in the produce section, looking over the array of vibrant vegetables. “Do you see the celery?” the elderly lady asked me. I found it for her and she sighed heavy. “No, no – is there any with the leaves?” she asked. A quick look through again turned up nothing. I asked her why she wanted the celery leaves. “People today,” she started, “have no idea what they are missing out on. The leaves of celery in broth is so rich. So flavorful. It is a shame that it is always cut off before coming to the store.” When she heard that homemade broth was a common thing in our home she was delighted. As we parted ways she encouraged “honey, don’t stop looking for those celery leaves. They will transform your broth!”
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The elderly woman, only slightly bigger than my six year old, struggled with pushing her overburdened cart to her car. I watched her, feeling like I should go offer to help, but also just wanting to get home. By the time I had gotten to our car on the far side of the parking lot, unloaded our groceries and gotten the boys in their seats the lady hadn’t yet reached her car. I couldn’t ignore her any more, and asked the boys to come with me so we could see if we could help. By the time we reached her she had only just managed to unlock her car. I asked her if we could be of any help to her, while at the same moment the boys started unloading her cart. Her eyes teared up as she thanked them, and told me she wasn’t buying more groceries til after Christmas, then more than four weeks away. As we finished unloading she hugged each of us tightly, thanking us for the help.

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Jessica Lynette

15 Comments

  1. Ahhh, I love this. Maybe I should try it. I feel like I keep to myself a lot, but would love to help create a sense of community wherever I go. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Living in a small city with lots of older people I have had opportunities to start talking to people more. Often they start the conversation, but sometimes just a comment will get them going. The other day a man was looking at the strawberries which were on sale, but looked rather ripe. I asked if there were some good ones. This man, possibly in his early 70s, told me there were some, then asked if I knew how to use a vinegar rinse to preserve them longer. He proceeded to tell me to use 1 part vinegar to 10 parts water, briefly soak the strawberries with hulls on. Then dry on paper towels and store in their original container in the fridge. I thanked him and tried it at home. You know what? It seems to work! You’ve encouraged me to try more. I feel like in the city where I live, I might see the same people over and over and eventually my friendliness might lead to an opportunity to witness.

    • That would be neat to make deeper friendships this way 🙂 I have never run in to the same person twice.
      And good tip about the strawberries! I will try that 🙂

        • Yes, a lot more comfortable anyway. Sometimes I just need to get my shopping done and be somewhere else so I don’t look for people to talk to but easing in to conversations with strangers is much easier for me.

  3. Thank you for sharing! In most of my trips out I tend to just get in and out as quick as I can….and I use the self-checkout. Thank you for telling your story, as I see that I should be more open to having conversations with others!

  4. Jessica this was wonderful to read and really is something I am not good at. I often have trouble making small talk with people I know. I never thought of using trips to the grocery store to work on this. My next grocery trip I will keep my eye out for someone to chat with.

    Have you read the book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce? I recently finished it and loved it. This post brought the book to mind and I think you might enjoy it.

      • Did you get a chance to read that book? I’m curious about whether you enjoyed it or not.
        It’s on another topic but I’m curious if you have read the book ‘What is the What’. It is one of my favourites and I tend to think of you when I think of stories that come out of Africa.

        • I just saw this question now!!
          I did get the book and read it. It was really intriguing to me! I forget why I didn’t include it in my favorite books of the year post … I think it had content in it that I didn’t feel comfortable recommending given that I have some middle schoolers that follow my reading lists? I can’t quite recall. But thank you for the recommendation and I will look for the What is the What book now! 🙂

          • I’m glad that you enjoyed it! It was a story that makes you think.

            I would love to hear how you like What is the What. Right after reading that book, I read The Book of Negros which is set in the past and I was very surprised by the parallels I could find in the two books – in my sheltered life it feels like we have come so far but the reality is that there is a lot of progress still to be made.

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