We meet them on airplanes, trains, by sharing a counter at a coffee bar and maybe waiting in a long line at the grocery store or to buy a ticket to a movie or play. Or, sometimes, we meet when we’re a captive audience for an extremely long period at a surprising time—while waiting for our car to be fixed or being stuck with a sick family member in a hospital emergency room.
They look at us, we look at them and rather than continue with our heads buried in a book, magazine, Smartphone, iPad, newspaper or waiting for the doctor to appear and give us a report, we--or they--start a casual conversation. We need to talk, especially if we’re stressed or killing time. Suddenly, we’re off and running since idle chatter seems more tolerable than dead silence.
“Where are you going?” “What do you do for a living?” “What are you reading? What genre do you like best?” “Why are you here, if you don’t mind telling me?” We ask to be polite, usually not knowing if and how they’ll respond.
Some may make it very clear they have no interest in chattering by offering only brief replies. “Yes, it’s great,” and they put their head back in their iPad or book. Others pick up the invitation and as if pressing the start button, they begin spilling details of their lives without taking a breath—where they live, work, how many kids they have back home, what they did when they graduated college decades ago, or maybe even their opinion about the challenging state of the world. “Can you believe the headlines in the newspaper today?” That’s certainly an invitation for a reply—or can be a reason to shut down the conversation.
In initiating these random conversations with strangers, from time to time we have ended up crossing the line—and found that our liberal or conservative views may clash with someone else’s. As a result, we’ve learned the hard way that the best tactic is to keep conversations light and not reveal too much. Why get into a debate with a stranger, especially over facts! Google makes that all so irrelevant.
But most of us never expect to develop a relationship beyond the one in that time and space with these random acquaintances. So, anything we divulge in that moment is shared and forgotten. You think, “I’ll never see that person again most likely so why not share all (or almost all).”
Instead, we have found, we tend to tiptoe around the more personal details of our lives. We avoid sharing our last names and hometowns or playing any kind of religious or college geography to fill in the blanks about ourselves. And we certainly never talk about others since we don’t know who else they might know and like or dislike or who else might be within random earshot.
If, however, if we make a strong connection and want to continue the acquaintance, we might share our phone numbers for texting or our email addresses. Barbara recently exchanged texts with a person she shared a hospital cubicle with where both families were packed in together into one space like sardines. Conversation certainly helped lighten the mood and pass the time as each side nervously waited for medical results. Barbara learned about the husband’s entrepreneurial career; he heard about her writing; and they each learned about their respective grandchildren; and what had happened to their loved ones.
The next day they ran into each other when visiting at the hospital and a day later more texts were exchanged. They were almost buddies…but not really. A few weeks later they texted again and with each other’s family member slowly on the mend, it was time to put the budding friendship to rest. Fun while it lasted.
Margaret met an aspiring actor who she was sitting next to her in a New York City restaurant. They had a pleasant exchange for more than an hour. He was appearing in a play in the neighborhood and Margaret said she’d try to go see him perform. She didn’t have time for she was there a short time to look at apartments. She’s also met countless people on airplanes with whom she formed a strong bond in a short two hours such as two women who were going to Los Angeles for a girls’ trip. She talked and giggled with them until the plane landed. At that point, they hugged and said, “It was so great meeting you.” That was that.
In other cases, we might be very bold and text or email and engage in more conversation or even suggest getting together for coffee or lunch. Once Barbara met a couple at a random pop-up dinner that she was attending as a single. She saw the couple again at a movie in her town, and before long ran into them and friends of theirs again at another pop-up dinner. This time they schmoozed more, and because she thought there was enough of a connection, she invited all four to her home for a dinner party that was in the works. Nothing ventured, nothing gained—or lost—was her thinking. Seven years later, they’ve become close friends, and she’s glad she took the lead. But in most cases, a friendship won’t develop, let alone a text or email from the other person. And that’s fine.
Sometimes meeting a stranger on a plane, train or boat can lead to a permanent relationship. Take the example of Margaret’s younger sister who met her husband on an airplane that was flying across country from New York City to Seattle. Her company, an advertising agency, was sending her to the West Coast to interview women about their laundry detergent choices. Since it was a long flight, they seated her in first class, which was almost empty except for one man sitting across the aisle from her in the same row and another man sitting in the row in front. The man across the aisle started talking to her. She mentioned that she had just moved to NYC. He was a NYC native and she remembers thinking it was nice to talk with someone who had grown up there and knew the area. When the plane landed, the man asked for her name and number and if he could contact her when they both got back to NYC. He called a week later. Their first date was in January 1983. They went dancing at a club where Tina Turner had staged her comeback concert. (A reenactment of that comeback was included in the movie “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”) Four years later in May 1987, Margaret’s sister married the stranger whom she met on the plane, and they now have three grown children. Ironically, the man who was sitting in front of her on the plane, who was her husband’s client at the time, is now their neighbor in Upstate New York.
But this random-conversation-leads-to-marriage scenario is probably the exception, we’ve discovered over time. People can be terribly interesting for brief spells without becoming close pals and remain a pleasant memory of an engaging conversation, trip or dinner. We might learn something new or simply expand our horizons if we’re open to it, and we might brighten their day and teach them a thing or two. Or, we might meet a future good friend, partner or spouse if we’re open to the possibility. There’s nothing better than making these human connections, especially when least expected.