Say Hello to Strangers

As I write this, I am sitting by the open front door of my neighborhood cafe. It’s the same place I sat just over a year ago, before Covid changed everything. My temperature just recorded next to my address and phone number. My mask is off, spring air chilled by the river a quarter-mile to the west. In a time when we yearn for the familiar, for our tried-and-true routines, this one has returned. I now treat this freedom as a privilege that could be easily withdrawn. It feels both familiar and new. The newness is revealing itself in how I find myself relating to the people I share public spaces with. In the four years I’ve been coming here I rarely talked to anyone nor have they talked to me. Since my return, I’ve been saying hello to people and they to me. I am trying to understand why.

Last month I was sitting outside at my cafe, feeling the sun warm my cheeks. At the next table was a slender, young man; a shower of thick, ebony braids hung over his shoulders. Wisdom older than his age sat behind his eyes. “Hello” floated out of my unmasked mouth. He lifted his head, his gentle eyes acknowledging me. “Hello,” he replied; then he returned to his work and I to mine. Ten minutes later, when I felt the urge to look up, I found his outstretched hands holding three small mesh bags. He raised his eyelids and said, “Take the one which most resonates with you.” 

Inside the bags were three laminated cards, each with what looked like a poem on one side. My eyes narrowed to home in on my gift. After reading all three, this one felt just right: 

I learned the young man was born Travis Lewis. A few years ago these precious, short poems began coming to him when talking to people. He changed his name to Bliss when his inner voice told him that his name should reflect what he presented to the world. And so his business, Blissfirmations was born.

In the past several months, I’ve had a number of serendipitous encounters which began with Hello. Imagine that, just saying hello to strangers (who I am learning aren’t actually strangers at all). Ever since I can remember I’ve heard the Don’t talk to strangers as a warning we should all heed. But thinking back, I don’t recall ever hearing this warning from my parents. When I was seven I walked the half mile from our home in Forest Hills, Queens to Austin Street alone.  I went down into the subway underpass that runs underneath Queens Boulevard to buy baseball cards at the local stationery store. When we moved to the country I began hitchhiking at the age of nine. To my childhood self, talking to strangers was quite natural. 

As I basked in a newfound, post-vaccination communion with strangers, I discovered that I had stopped talking to strangers even before Covid. I was taken aback by this. When did I stop talking to strangers? The realization was confusing to me because some of the most important relationships I had made in my life had come when I felt safe enough to talk to someone that I didn’t know. I met my wife when she was one of my nurses during my first knee operation. You could argue that she wasn’t exactly a stranger but clearly she was somebody I didn’t know, and asking her on a date was a pretty big gamble. I met one of my closest friends sitting at lunch during a conference. My relationship with another of my closest friends began by initiating a conversation with her at a TED salon. In each case my approach was spontaneous and open, not worried about the result.

In the periods of my life when I didn’t feel as secure, I withdrew into myself. It was a shock to realize that one of these periods preceded the pandemic, and that it was only returning to me now. With a newfound appreciation for the fragility of life, I’ve begun to see “strangers” as part of our community of humans, who are all in this historic experiment trying to learn how to live together. Covid-19 has brought this interdependence into focus. The pandemic was caused in large part by our inability to accept this interdependence. The misbelief that we are separate beings competing for scarce resources has caused many of us to see someone we haven’t met before as the other. From an early age, we have been taught to be wary of the differences between us. A different skin color, national origin, age, religion, political affiliation or gender preference, among other things, can frighten us.

In the dozens of Share Lab sessions, the listening and support program we developed at the beginning of the pandemic,  I’ve come to see how alike we are. The fears, hopes, and dreams of participants from very diverse backgrounds have been much more similar than I ever imagined. Many of the participants were strangers when I first met them, but after an hour together it is clear that we are all trying to figure out how to live our best lives in this very unfamiliar world. I have become much more comfortable talking to people I don’t know. Several have become friends and colleagues. Maybe, the more we see how connected we really are, it will be much easier to say Hello. This way we might be able to co-create a better world for all of us to live in. 

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By Mark Monchek

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