Focused Living, One Month at a Time

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Challenge #24 (S)talking to Strangers

I will talk to a new person whom I have never met, every day this month.

“If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world.”
-Francis Bacon

Why Do This
My intention was to genuinely connect, face-to-face and eye-to-eye, with someone new who was outside of my usual contacts, no matter if it was just a few words or a few moments, but sometimes it was much more. Years ago I worked in retail sales, where this was a part of the job, but I am definitely out of practice these days. Does this sound ambitious for a naturally shy person? Yes, that’s what made it a good challenge. So the simple rules were even if I had talked to the person on the phone, or emailed, but never met in person they would count – it’s a totally different interaction with someone in person, right? Some days it was harder than others to make a connection, and that’s when it started feeling a bit like stalking…in a good way. Usually.

A Head Start
I picked this particular month for this challenge knowing that I would be attending and working at two out-of-town conferences for the first nine days – a perfect opportunity to jump in and practice those introduction skills. And it worked! I met a few fellow bloggers in Canada, then a whole bunch of old and new environmental advocate friends in Georgia. Even though I was extremely busy working at the second conference, I made the point to slow down when talking to someone new and give him or her my full attention for as long as I could, and it was a good feeling.

Some Highlights
The best total stranger interaction this month was completely unexpected: my cab driver in Atlanta.  We spent a glorious half-hour in non-stop thoughtful conversation about a multitude of subjects including the political strife in his home country, Guinea, including the power struggles, resource and environmental battles, and how these issues play out to some degree or another in every country, including the U.S. We talked about the importance of travel to learn new perspectives and why he, like me, works for himself so he has flexibility in his schedule and his life.   He speaks seven languages (English very proficiently, French is his native) and he is close with his sister and brother who he visits in Guinea for a few months every year. As I stepped out of the cab, he gave me his card and concluded with “if you have a good heart good things will come.”  It was the best cab ride. Ever.  
Other top experiences included inspiring conversations with renowned figures such as Walter Munk and Reverend Gerald Durley who I met through my work, and am grateful for every moment I got to spend in their presence. I also got to interact in Spanish a few times, both with adults and children, which was a lot of fun to practice again.  
The “stalking” aspect of the challenge came out usually around sunset when I realized I hadn’t done my daily duty yet.  I would slink down the street to the strand and out to the Manhattan Beach pier, sending out the “I’m normal, I hope you are too, I just want to talk for a minute” vibe and hope that some one would pick up on it and come over to me. That never happened. I had to initiate conversations, mostly with folks standing still like the fishermen, which happened a few times.  I usually asked them about their bait, and what they were most hoping to catch - sharks was actually answered a few times, to my dismay.

Who I did NOT talk to
So there were some types of folks when I went walking/stalking out on the pier that I just didn’t even try to start a conversation, including the obvious headphone-wearing runners, the moms who were totally focused on their toddler(s), and the excited foreigners snapping surfer photos and speaking in German to each other. Also off limits were the “head down entranced by my smart phone so don’t bother me” types – there seem to be more and more of those around lately. I also did not talk to (but I certainly stalked and watched for a while) the Pigeon Man on the pier, who I really wanted to connect with because he looked like an interesting character, but I could tell he was way more interested in feeding and connecting with his birds than me, or any other human.

A Relevant Observation
This month Bob Meistrell passed away. Bob and his brother Bill are legends in their industry, and founded the iconic Body Glove brand and who did so much for their community. I had the brief pleasure of meeting Bob at an event a few years ago, just because I had the gumption to go up and talk to him. He was as enthusiastic as I had heard, and didn’t appear to be slowing down at all as he approached his eighties. This month I was glad to have had the privilege of shaking his hand and chatting for a few moments. It has always been worth it to say hello - you never know where the conversation may lead, and you never know when the person may be gone, so why not connect when you can?

Lessons Learned
I succeeded in conversing with strangers on 27 of the 30 days of June, and am going to call that a success. I do think it would have been easier if I had a dog (especially a puppy) to connect with people on the strand – people love to talk about each others dogs, EASY stranger chat bait!
This was a great experiment and has strengthened my confidence in doing this most basic of human skills. It is when we connect in person to each other and seriously listen and learn that we truly start to understand each other, I believe this now more than ever. How do you feel about talking to strangers?  Oh, and if you ever need a cab driver in the Atlanta area, I highly recommend the service of Cherif at S.C. Transportation. You can reach him at (770) 572-1659 to arrange your ride.

P.S. I’ve been doing this for two years now; it is actually hard to believe there are only six months of challenges left.  The months are flying by faster than ever it seems, aren’t they?  One of the insights I am most clear about after 24 months is that I do better at the challenges that are designed to be practiced every single day, as a habit, rather than a “get something big done this month” kind of challenge, which I would tend to procrastinate.  Are you making any habit changes these days?   What works and what doesn’t?