The wife (Cruella) brought this tweet to my attention over the weekend:
My unpopular opinion: If we make talking to strangers (as adults) culturally taboo, the only strangers who will talk to people are assholes and that will make us think that everyone is an asshole and that is bad, so I think striking up conversations with strangers is very good.
— Hank Green (@hankgreen) July 16, 2022
With 800+ replies one would expect there to be a wide range of opinion on the issue. In fact they broke down into just two camps, the pro talking to people side and the I just want to be left alone side.
I saved my opinion on the matter for you dear readers. Cause that’s the kinda guy I am.
Before going any further I want to make it clear I’m talking about, well, talking. Not written communication, not DMs or IMs or Pokes or Prods or whatever. Actual real human interaction between two or more people in close proximity to one another.
I’m going to admit to being a bit biased on this because it is, and has always been, my job to talk to strangers. Whether it’s selling something or talking about what they are seeing, I routinely get up in front of groups large and small and start talking. I like to think what makes my tours that much more memorable is that when I’m not talking to the group, I’m usually talking to an individual in the group. At some point or another everyone gets the personal touch.
So I believe in talking to people. Even the ones you don’t know. Maybe even the ones who you don’t like. Or you think might not like you. That last one might be the most important one. Remember what the school librarian told you, don’t judge a book by it’s cover.
One of the major reasons I like to talk to other people is to get their stories. In case you missed that day in grammar school, everyone has a story to tell. Even the quiet guy in the corner watching the world go by. Who knows, maybe he’s the brother of your best remembered high school teacher, stranger things have happened. And if not I’m willing to bet he still has a story to tell. I once got an entire fascinating dissertation on the state of the American rail system while waiting for a table at a restaurant, all because I wasn’t afraid to start a conversation with a stranger.
I also like to talk to people, especially when traveling, to get a sense of where you are. Listening to a person’s dialect and idioms can tell you more about this place you find yourself in than any guide book or (dare I say it?) tour guide. That guy with the dissertation on railroads? His accent, one I had a hard time placing, was what got us talking. Turns out he was local to the small Arizona town we were in and that everyone in town talks the same way. Wouldn’t have found that out if I was afraid to speak to him.
Ah, yes, that word — afraid. Fear is a deep rationale for not speaking to someone. “They’ll think I’m weird”, “they’ll think I’m trying to sell them something”, “they’ll rebuff me in a potentially violent way”.
- Everyone thinks you’re weird till they get to know you.
- You’re not selling them anything and it will become quite apparent after a few moments.
- The only people who get violent because you spoke to them belong in some form of institution.
Obviously there are situations where discretion is the better part of valor. If someone is obviously having a bad day, don’t run up to them and suggest they “snap out of it”. That’s just obnoxious and not at all what I’m talking about. On the low end of personal relationships give them a wide berth. On the high end ask if there’s anything you can do to help.
That’s called being a good person. Just like when we communicate on a one to one level we become better people. and it becomes harder to just blindly dismiss someone else’s opinion.
There was a book written by Robert Putnam in the early 1980’s called BOWLING ALONE. It became a bit controversial because it’s theory, that civic life is collapsing because Americans aren’t joining the groups and clubs that promote trust and cooperation, had somewhat flawed data. Yes, bowling leagues were become fewer and fewer, but softball teams were growing. Fraternal organizations were losing members, but affinity organizations were on the rise. The point of the book though was that by not joining in organizations we were putting the very idea of democracy in jeopardy.
Ah, democracy in jeopardy, that has a contemporary ring to it.
I’m not saying it’s the only reason we are so polarized these days. It’s more a symptom than a cause. But disregarding the symptoms only leads to the disease getting worse.
Americans now “join” plenty of organizations. The problems are the organizations are so highly specialized and the meetings aren’t face to face but rather over the internet. Everyone in the group has the same opinions on the same subjects. These echo chambers convince members that only they are right and everyone else is wrong.
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about stamp collecting, a sports team, or what direction the country should be headed in.
And it’s the bottom line of what I’m really talking about. This country has separated into tribes and each one of those tribes refuses to talk to the others. Oh they talk AT each other all the time, but that’s not the same thing. It’s not even liberal and conservative anymore, it’s AOC liberal versus Bernie liberal and Trumpers versus old school conservatives and a thousand (seemingly) variations in-between and further to the left and further to the right. All of them come down to the same position: I’m right, you’re wrong.
It’s not going to get better because you challenge someone’s beliefs or ideas. That’s debate, not conversation. Try having one with someone you’re stuck on line with at the supermarket. Or while waiting for a bus. Or any of your daily interactions. You’d be surprised what you can learn.
Conversations are the acorns that will grow into the oaks of political civility.