Conversations with strangers are a part of public life. We hold conversations all the time, yet we may never think about it. We sometimes fail to start a conversation with someone standing right in front of us, and we do not think about this, either. Of course, not everyone wants to be gregarious. We may provide perfectly good reasons to ourselves. “I am too busy,” or “I don’t know that person.” If you started talking with a stranger, what might you say?
Sherry Turkle observes that conversations of any kind have become more difficult in recent times. A specialist in social media use, Turkle expresses concerns about the “flight from conversation” occasioned by cell phone use, especially texting and social media. We need to reclaim the art of conversation, she asserts, because “It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy.” In interviewing college students to determine patterns of texting, she came to an unexpected discovery: fewer conversations were taking place. The presence of a phone changes the pattern of communication. If we think we might be interrupted, we keep our conversations lighter.
Yet what about when you first meet someone? Nicholas Boothman, who has written extensively about face-to-face communication, suggests opening your body and attitude and avoiding defensives gestures such as crossed arms or clenched fists, which telegraph a reluctance to engage. Be the first person to make eye contact, and also be the first person to smile. Boothman employs a great term for this: Beam, as if a embodying a shining light that reflects a positive attitude. Say “hello” or “hi” or whatever seems appropriate, and if it seems appropriate, shake the person’s hand. He also suggests leaning toward them. “This action can be an almost imperceptible tilt to subtly indicate your interest and openness.”
What if you share space with someone who is a stranger? A simple method involves making a statement about your location or about the occasion you share. Small talk about the weather certainly fits this bill, but it’s often possible to be more specific. Follow this up with an open-ended question, something that does not readily admit of a yes or no answer. Such open-ended questions often begin with “who, what, when, where, why, how?” and invite someone to share something about how they are feeling or experiencing the moment. Then listen! And let the person know you are listening through your expression.
Talking across economic class presents even more of a challenge. These days we have few opportunities, assuming we are middle class, to talk with someone who is poor. Where exactly would that happen? If you grew up middle class, high school might be the last opportunity to walk alongside people who have not shared the perks of your income strata. Then college and career kick in to fuel a trajectory far from streets shared with people who struggle to make ends meet.
Now you have volunteered to work in a hot lunch program provided for families that struggle financially. It may seem important to get the work done. Is there really time for conversation amid cooking, or setting up, or serving, or cleaning and taking down? What would you say?
At this point, unconscious attitudes toward poverty and the poor weigh in. As Boothman writes, “In face-to-face situations, your attitude precedes you.” Several years ago I questioned customers at a New York City food pantry about their experiences asking for help. Anthony Maldonodo told me about a time he and his wife sought food and were turned away. “There were times we were hungry, times that we needed, we really needed, and we knew there was a food pantry there. I know I look intimidating sometimes. It was like, there was a lady there by herself. She didn’t want to let me in. It was very degrading.” How did he respond? “I did get angry at first. But then I thought about it and I put myself in her position. It’s understandable, but I wish she would have just spoken to me. I didn’t feel like a person. Less than a person.” Our attitudes precede us.
What if someone asks you for money? Such conversations can be fraught. John Flowers, an urban pastor in Phoenix, recommends a focus on problem-solving, not giving money. “Giving money not only produces a false sense of satisfaction; it perpetuates the system, keeping the poor dependent on the handout.” While cash emergencies arise, providing money to someone with no strings attached is fraught with problems. As an alternative, he suggests that a clergy member invite problem solving.
“My mother is sick and dying in a Houston Hospital.”
“I’m so sorry, I lost my mother years ago. I know that must be tough.”
“Would you please buy me a bus ticket? I need to be with her and the bus leaves in one half hour.”
“I’m really sorry, we don’t do money. We used to do money and you’re not going to believe this, but 90% of the folks who came through these doors with a sad story were just trying to con us. I don’t question your story is true and I hate it that those who came before you ruined it for everybody. I have been given clear instructions, though, and we can’t do money.” “We do food, clothing, medical care, dental care and vision care, AA meetings, Bible study, and even work. You can earn money for that ticket through working here. Our work program begins on Monday. Come and sign up, and you might earn some money to buy that ticket.”
Flowers suggests that by asking for money or a bus ticket for a relative in a distant hospital, this person has presented a problem but not allowed you any voice in solving the problem. They want you to solve the problem their way.
Conversations with strangers occupy a significant, though diminishing, part of public life. Though we bring a variety of temperaments from gregarious to shy to any conversational encounter, the potential benefits are real: We might make a few friends along the way.
 Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin Press, 2015), 3, 21.
 Nicholas Boothman, How To Make People Like You in 90 Seconds Or Less (New York: Workman Press, 2008), 14-16.
 Boothman, How To Make People Like You, 92.
 Boothman, How To Make People Like You, 92.
 John Flowers and Karen Vannoy, Not Just a One Night Stand: Ministry with the Homeless (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2009), 34,36,37.
Photo: AK Rockefeller, Handshake, 5.4.2012. Flickr Creative Commons.