On Friday morning as I rummaged through the so-called “news” cluttering the junk drawer of my mind, I received a text from a friend on a more important topic.
“I just went to the gym,” she reported, “where no one really talks to anyone else. Then to my coffee shop where no one talks to anyone. (I did get into a nice conversation with the woman next to me.) I ride the “L” all the time and no one talks to one another, although I occasionally make an effort and it’s amazing how gratifying it is.”
So, prompted by her text, let’s forget the news today and think instead about the value of impromptu conversations with people you barely know or have never met.
Talking with strangers — or failing to — is hardly a novel subject. It has been addressed in newspapers, books and podcasts for about as long as those media have existed. “Weird conversations we’ve had with strangers” is a category on the online site Reddit.
But like all important topics, this one bears repeated contemplation. As Garrison Keillor once lamented, “If we can’t talk to strangers … then it’s no wonder politics is so out of whack.”
My friend’s text reminded me of a conversation I’d had earlier in the week. On a day way too cold for early November, I dipped into the Lincoln Park Conservatory — one of Chicago’s great free places — for a quick spin past the ferns and banana trees. In the orchid room, I spotted a woman inspecting a budding plant that looked familiar.
“Is that a Christmas cactus?” I asked.
I surprised myself by asking — I’ve walked through the conservatory hundreds of times and never stopped to talk — and probably surprised her too.
I explained to her that a friend had given me a plant that looked just like this one, and I’d never been sure what it was called.
The stranger said she wasn’t sure either. Then she Googled on her phone and concluded that, yes, it was a Schlumbergera Christmas cactus. As we admired the fresh blooms, I felt prompted to tell her — in an uncharacteristic display of oversharing — that mine was budding, for the first time ever, and that the friend who had given it to me was struggling with cancer, which made the buds both sad and auspicious, and that’s why I’d been wondering lately what it was called.
The poor woman was no doubt relieved when I didn’t carry the conversation further but instead said thanks and went on my way.
But as I walked off, I realized something: I felt better. Calmer. Lighter. I could have Googled that plant on my own but the information seemed more valuable because I’d sought help from a stranger who seemed happy to supply it. The gray day seemed a shade brighter.
Not everyone wants to talk to strangers and not everyone wants to be talked to.
At the gym, I enjoy the occasional brief chat but figure that most people are there with a clear goal and a schedule. At a cafe, if I’m working, I like to imagine my invisible shield is impenetrable.
On the other hand, unlike people I know who prefer to commune with their phones on cab rides, I always enjoy talking to drivers, even if it means listening to a monologue.
I don’t often initiate conversation on the “L” but enjoy one on the rare occasion that it happens. In fact, I tried to talk to the guy next to me a few days ago — mostly to see if he understood why the Red Line was running on the Brown Line tracks — but he ignored me. I spoke again. He ignored me. I felt slightly miffed until I realized he hadn’t heard me — he was nodding away to the beat of the music coming through his earbuds. Talking with strangers can be complicated in an earbud-obsessed world.
But research shows that talking with strangers makes us feel better. Several years ago, Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, conducted a study on bus and train commuters in Chicago.
Along with his co-researcher, he discovered that even people reluctant to strike up a conversation on the commute — who thought it would be unpleasant — enjoyed it. Equally important, the experiment participants discovered that the person next to them was happy to chat and that person felt better afterward too.
The moral of this story? If you’re looking for a free and easy way to warm up this cold November, walk away from the news for a while and go talk to a stranger.
Mary Schmich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.