Talking to strangers…

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For this New York Times story, I spoke to this woman and teachers and volunteers and many middle school students

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I spend my professional life speaking with strangers, an odd way to describe journalism — since everyone focuses on the (cough) fame, fortune or fake news that’s the written or broadcast end result.

But if I don’t speak to strangers — and those have included Queen Elizabeth, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, a female Admiral and a few celebrities (like Billy Joel at the very start of his career) — I have nothing to work with. Just as every builder needs bricks and mortar and windows and doors and HVAC to create a functional home, I need to assemble quotes, facts and anecdotes to write interesting stories.

People assume that, because it’s a journalist’s job to talk to strangers, we each find it comfortable and easy. But sometimes it’s excruciating, like speaking to the survivors of or witnesses to rape, genocide, war, mass shootings — meeting people in their most vulnerable moments, sensitively (at best!) managing their tender emotions even as we struggle to mask or contain our own.

But it’s also the part of the work I most enjoy. People are so different, and yet we all want to be listened to attentively and respectfully.

We want to be met with interest, empathy, compassion.

It’s good to find common ground.

It’s great to share a laugh!

I also talk to strangers when I’m out and about — at the gym or grocery store or on the train and, especially, when I sit alone at a bar and chat (when welcomed) to the person beside me.

And because I’ve traveled widely and often alone — Istanbul to Fiji, Peru to the Arctic — I’ve also had to rely many times on the advice, kindness and wisdom of strangers. It does require good judgment and the confidence to suss out a baddie from a perfectly kind soul. So far my only misjudgement, of course, happened at home in suburban New York.

This past week was a perfect example of why, (and yes I’m careful)…I sat at the bar, as I usually do when I eat out alone, at a fun restaurant, and the man beside me was heavily tattooed, had a thick, gray lumberjack beard and was on his second or third tequila. His name was Joe and we had a terrific conversation — he’s a tattoo artist and former Marine.

We could not have less in common!

And yet, a lively, friendly chat ensued.

The power of journalism, in forcing its front-line staff to talk to hundreds of strangers every year, is that it shoves us out of any self-defined “comfort zone” — a phrase I truly loathe. No matter how I personally feel about a specific subject (and, as a freelancer I won’t take on something I know will revolt me), I have to remain polite and respectful to my interlocutor.

If only every teen and every adult would make time to civilly engage with people they don’t know, whose politics they haven’t predetermined and admired, whose race and gender and sexual preference and age and clothing and demeanor and house and vehicle don’t signal they’re predictably and cozily “one of us.”

 

Would the U.S. — or Britain — be any less divided?

 

Do you speak to strangers beyond necessary commercial or medical interactions?

21 thoughts on “Talking to strangers…

    1. Interesting! I see so many women scared of speaking to others, certainly men they don’t know….if you’re sober and smart, fun conversations are possible…I’ve had them in Atlanta and Corsica and here at home.

  1. I am genuinely interested in other people’s stories, so yes! And I find that it’s a benefit of aging that I feel fewer worries a guy will misunderstand my friendliness so I’ve gotten even chattier with strangers. I ask questions and listen to the answers because I’m curious/nosy. It surprises me that not everyone is like that – in fact, few are – not just young people although phones haven’t helped.

  2. I don’t talk much to those I don’t know. I am not unfriendly or scared, just an introvert. I am not good with crowds and avoid them if I have the choice and I’m not a big fan of large parties or social events. I’m somewhat better than I used to be, but still, I like small groups. I wouldn’t have made a good journalist! 🙂

    1. Interesting!

      I actually don’t like large groups either and even fled an annual writing conference full of my friends this year, after one day (and having paid for both days.) I just couldn’t make perky small talk, especially after a year dealing with breast cancer treatment. My limited capacity for chirpy banality is GONE….so when I want to chat, I really crave smart conversation.

      I’ve been working alone at home since 2006 and it’s lonely!

      1. It’s funny how a serious illness can focus our attention on what’s important.

        I am happy that in my work I don’t have to directly deal with a lot of people all at once, but I understand how working for years alone would make you crave, at the very minimum, some professional contact. 🙂

      2. I love sitting with a friend, one-on-one, and a private conversation is one thing…I don’t miss the noise and distraction if an office setting, nor the politics and drama.

        The problem now is that 99% of my professional contact is only possible through social media — and people are getting bitchy and weird on-line, which means I really will have almost no one to talk to about work.

  3. I actually went to a coworker’s birthday party last night and spoke to my boss’s brother for a few minutes. That was a pleasant interaction. Never met the man before, but we spoke about him moving to Arizona and my writing.

  4. I strike up convos with random strangers constantly. It’s fab. Everyone has a story, no one is boring once you talk to them with a genuine interest in what they have to say. Human beings have rich inner lives, every last one of us, and most of us will only see the surface of those billions of other lives.

    1. So true.

      I am endlessly surprised by what I learn from other people, and I enjoy that I get paid to do that as a journalist. One of my recent interviews was with Alex Dowsett, one of only 6 UK competitors in the 2019 Tour de France, because he is hemophiliac and this was a profile for s hemophilia magazine. That’s also how I met the team coach of the NY Rangers hockey team as well — who practice right in our town.

    2. Me too! There are so many people with interesting stories. The last time I travelled from Kings Cross, I had a fascinating conversation with a woman who used to be an arts director at the Southbank Centre. It passed the journey time and by the end of our journey, we were swapping book recommendations and sharing our lunch together.

      It’s nice to hear that you’re open to chatting with strangers – it can be a rare thing in London (especially on the tube – everyone looks miserable there haha).

      1. London and NY, for sure, being sooooo crowded and costly, can mean people withdraw. I get that. But also, so many stories!

        One of the reasons I enjoy going to a 3-chair hair salon in NYC — smaller than our living room — is the amazing variety of men and women who share the chairs, everyone from a Grammy-nominated musician (!) to a Brooklyn museum curator. We always end up in lively conversation, even slathered in hair dye. It tends to attract an eclectic/creative/non $$$$ clientele.

  5. I am a curious and social person by nature. I find other people’s perspectives and stories interesting. I engage in conversation often with my Uber drivers, who take me to and from work most days. I learn so much!

    1. For sure. It’s interesting — some days I just want and need silence, and some days really crave even a brief connection.

      I have been working alone at home, no kids, since 2006. I enjoy it, but it is also very isolating.

  6. Doing public facing events I talk to a lot of people I don’t know. and I’ve also worked retail 🙂 it makes such a difference when people are willing to treat each other with respect, regardless of the circumstances. Sadly, it doesn’t always go that way.

  7. You brought me back to my first interview on campus, which consisted of dry mouth and choking then sweat, lots of sweat. Thankfully, the students I spoke with were kind and patient. I wanted to quit journalism and do anything but that. I didn’t do that though. And, oh, the people I’ve met and what I’ve learned about them.

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