ChatRoulette Misses The Point — Sharing Physical Space

This false-color satellite image shows Manhatt...
There is, I am sure, someone here to talk to ...Image via Wikipedia

Get out of your home. Get off your computer or gadget.

Go sit in a bar/cafe/restaurant/bus/train/airplane/ferry boat/park. Strike up a conversation with someone who is a total stranger to you. Face to face. Share physical space and conversation with that person — unless they are endangering you — for a minimum of 15 minutes.

Can you do it? Will you do it?

It’s cold. It’s rainy. It’s too hot. It’s too windy. I’d have to put my kid in a stroller. I feel fat today. There’s a big zit on my nose and no one will talk to me. They might not talk back. They might be mean or boring or stupid or not even speak English. What if they hit on me? What if they don’t?

Yesterday, I had a business meeting in Manhattan, in the lower 20s at Broadway. There are plenty of fun and cool restaurants nearby but I headed for one of my absolute favorites — The Old Town Bar, on 18th. Street, in business since 1892. The ceiling is dark brown painted tin. The lights are low-hanging and dimly-lit. The booths are battered wood, the floor old tile. The cash register has plastic keys and is made of metal.

I sat at the bar, as I almost always do whenever I am out and eating alone, and read my book and ate my burger. The guy to my left, a 20-something Master of the Universe in his $600 sport coat, Persol eyewear, his skis (?) propped against the bar, spent the whole time staring into his Blackberry. The guy to my right, two stools over, was nice enough to watch my coat while I went to the bathroom.

He looked to be in his late 30s, short, graying hair, wedding ring. I thanked him and started a conversation.

Turned out to be a smart and interesting computer guy originally from Ireland, in NYC as long as I, who came here for work with the same (God help us) stars in our ex-pat eyes. He and I shared notes on our favorite Manhattan 19th-century bars — “geezer bars” as he called them, The Landmark, Fanelli’s, The Ear Inn. Then I told him about my book and he suggested a writer I had never heard of whose ideas will likely be deeply helpful to me.

We both took a chance. I’m engaged and live with my partner, but I talk to strange men, and women, all the time. In person.

The moment wasn’t a flirtation in any way; he was wearing a wedding ring and I was only looking for a bit of chat. Two strangers, briefly and happily and thoughtfully, connecting. We didn’t trade business cards. Not the point.

What is so terrifying about sitting down and talking to someone you do not know in the same room?

You can always get up and leave. (Maybe not on a airplane, but just about anywhere else.) Maybe they will insult you. Maybe they will laugh at your jokes. Maybe you’re wearing the same color or love the same music on your separate little Ipods, but if you don’t take the risk of speaking, you’ll never know.

Even famously grouchy selfish New Yorkers are now — yes, really — sharing cabs. And liking it.

From today’s New York Post:

Who needs Facebook?

New Yorkers are making new friends and business partners in the back seats of shared taxicabs.

In just its second day, the cab-sharing program proved to be a great networking tool for several riders commuting yesterday from the Upper East Side to Midtown.

David Alper, a hedge-fund manager, and Adam Gehrie, a corporate financial-services lawyer, swapped business cards and agreed to set up a power lunch after grabbing a group ride from the stand at 72nd Street and Third Avenue.

“We should get together,” Alper suggested as the two exited their ride at 42nd and Park, the farthest the discounted rides will take up to four passengers

Along the way, they bantered about their educations: Gehrie said he attended Georgetown Law School, while Alper reported on his days at Antioch Law, both in Washington, DC.

“It’s a lot of fun to meet new people. I’d do it again,” Gehrie said.

Human beings are not cable channels to flip through at will and click away from the second they annoy or confuse or bore us. We need to connect. We need to connect deeply and intimately.

We are all going to die, some of us much sooner, some in truly agonizing ways that none of us even want to think about. I want my funeral filled with people who knew me personally, face to face, and cared for me. I want people all over the world — and they exist — to notice my absence, whether Matthew, the ggggggorgeous young man I met in 1980 on the train station platform in Huelva, Spain and traveled with for two weeks or Guillemette, my dear friend from Paris, or Pierre, the French truck driver with whom I shared his cab for eight days driving from Perpignan to Istanbul.

We couldn’t shower the whole time — hotels and motels cost money. My hair was filthy and my face broke out from constant road filth. We slept in the cab, his bunk maybe a foot below mine. I had never spent so much time so physically near anyone, let alone a strange man who spoke not a word of English.

I was 25 and he was 35 and we had never met and everyone I knew (it was for a story) thought I was insane.

Insane. How could I possibly do anything so risky?

Best eight days ever!

The way to make connections with strangers is not in ten-second clicks. The way to meet new people and learn how they think or feel or believe or pray or vote (or don’t) or what they eat for breakfast or who they read is not from the stupid safety of your machine.

Look into someone’s eyes two feet from you. Enjoy their perfume (or hate it) or their choice of socks or notice the little scar over their left eyebrow. Maybe they’ll tell you how it got there.

When I was 20 years old, I spent four months traveling along throughout Portugal, France, Spain and Italy. It was a really, really long time to be alone. If I wanted emotional contact with people I did not know, I had to negotiate it and do it safely. These are life skills.

You will not meet or get to know anyone when all you have to do to flee them is hit “next”.

2 thoughts on “ChatRoulette Misses The Point — Sharing Physical Space

  1. Nice piece, Caitlin. Though I would note that it’s not so easy for everybody to head to Europe, even on a shoestring budget. It’s pretty cool that something like Chatroulette can make a connection between strangers in the U.S. and France without anyone leaving their house.

  2. Caitlin Kelly


    I agree, of course, that international travel is costly and tough for many; it has always been my go-to luxury when I have any extra cash. But there are fun, cool, interesting people all around us in our own ‘nabes or towns every single day — if we’re willing to be (as) open to those possibilities as we are using a (safer) system online like Chatroulette.

    I worked retail for 2+ years PT and I had some amazing conversations with my customers. I miss that aspect of the job.

    I think people are so hungry now for contact, but I wish we were more willing to take the risks of doing it face to face.

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