Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Art of Talking to Strangers

Having ridden across America on Amtrak now quite a few times, I’ve had the chance to sit next to, to break bread with, and to share life experiences with total strangers, people I will meet one time and quite possibly never again. 

This experience has been an education--both on the content level of learning about others’ lives, and on the process level of the dynamics of interacting with strangers. I don’t think I have anything new to share, nor have I learned anything new. My interactions have, however, reinforced and made me more consciously aware of some basic fundamentals of communication. 

Listen before sharing. 

Listening sends a positive message to those I am interacting with, that I am interested in more than my needs and my options. It also provides me with information, which allows me to more artfully chose what I say. It's pretty hard, really, to offend others by listening to them talk. 

Find common interests. 

We actually have quite a lot in common with other people. Entering a conversation with the intent to enjoy that which we have in common creates a unifying experience. Amtrak seats strangers together at the dining table, and sitting down with the intent to have a pleasant meal and conversation--and then acting on that intent--has effected many pleasant shared meals. And it wasn't hard. It was mostly monitoring my conversation to be inclusive and not excluding. Self-monitoring one’s conversation is a skill that gets better with practice, I can tell you. 

It's not necessary for others to agree with you. 

There is no need for indignation if someone has a different point of view, not in a social situation, anyway. One can deflect or move on rather than debate or argue. Even if the person across the table is a dumb ass, there's no need to point that out. You wouldn't be believed, anyway. 

There are some communication situations that aren't just random meals with a stranger. This election year is a good example. I’d say then to 1) self-monitor, 2) maintain a rule of politeness, 3) stick to ideas and facts, and 4) be ready to stop. Remembering to listen is probably a good idea, too. 

Avoid (or tread lightly) when traveling rocky trails. 

My dad always said the best way to have a nice chat was to avoid the topics of politics, religion, and sex. Anyone following the recent presidential debates can see what happens when one places these three topics in a bag and shakes while on national TV. With a stranger, it's best to focus on parting on cordial terms. For someone we know, it's best to focus on parting on cordial terms. Hard words create hard hearts, both in speaker and listener. 

The best way to change our environment is to change ourselves. That is where we have the most influence. Better to part with a good feeling on both sides, better to find common ground. If the person across from us ain't that kinda person, then it's best to remember who we are rather than who they aren't. 

It's always best to fall back on what my momma taught me: “There's no excuse for bad manners.” Time to bite my tongue. If it hurts, serves me right. 

(Written on Amtrak, nose to my iPhone 6+)

1 comment:

  1. Great advice. Not only is this a great way to get fodder for our writing, it can make a journey more pleasant and, fo followed all the time, can make the world a more tolerant, peaceful place.