Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t accept the candy they offer, lest it be tainted with hallucinogens. Don’t reciprocate the pleasantries they foist upon you, lest they be tainted with malintent. These are the cardinal rules of childhood, protecting you from being abducted at a bookstore at the age of four.
However there comes an age where our aversion to danger no longer protects us, but precludes us from the joys of fleeting intimacy. As college students, this advice may seem banal, self-evident even. Of course, we’ve talked to strangers before — how else did we introduce ourselves to our now-dear friends, to professors and employers and colleagues.
But by strangers, I don’t mean people with whom we have a mutual friend, a shared occupation or a predetermined purpose that dictates our interaction. I’m talking about the 65-year-old man sitting next to you on the subway in New York; the woman walking down Hillhouse Avenue on a college tour with her daughter; the flight attendant on your flight home to Mumbai.
And by talking I don’t mean musing about the weather or telling them to have a nice day. I mean discovering something tangible about them, a triumph, a loss, a shared human experience that helps you appreciate this cosmic entity — fate, statistical probability or entropy — that has deliberately brought the two of you together. Now, I grant, one might be remiss to walk up to a stranger and sob uncontrollably about their awful breakup, or expect said stranger to reciprocate. So, I mean talking to strangers within the boundaries of civil inattention.
Over the past few months, I have become obsessed with talking to strangers. Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had are with an Uber driver about his divorce, and how leaving New Haven meant erasing the last vestige of a broken marriage from his life; a Lyft driver from Kabul who wants a friend and I to marry a pair of sisters as he did with his childhood best friend; an English teacher from St. Pete Florida on my flight to Tampa who regrets living with her parents during junior year.
How wonderful it is to think about that college student headed to Dublin, who stood behind me in the bag drop line at Newark airport. Did her heart skip a beat when I made her smile, the same way mine did when she laughed at my jokes? Would I have made a real connection if I hadn’t been pulled out of line by the agent who told me I was at the wrong terminal? Ah cruel, fickle fate.
On a less wistful note, talking to strangers, and then reflecting on my conversation with them, is the perfect opportunity to consider alternatives to the expected narratives of daily life. What role do transient connections and ephemeral friendships play in shaping our personalities and decisions? How many of these moments do we remember, and how many of the ones we forget are significant at the subliminal levels of consciousness? What role do we — the masters of our fate, the captains of our soul— play in the anti-parallel narratives of stranger’s lives? How unlikely is the moment of our meeting in the boundless universe? Is the happenstance of meeting these strangers a stroke of ethereal intervention or our own cultivation of active luck.
More tangibly, it is liberating to have a conversation that does not conform to the fixed pattern that so many of our interactions are limited to at Yale — sequentially discussing names, hometowns, residential colleges and majors until we find a shared activity, a mutual friend or a deeper interest in each other from which a real friendship can develop. Not to say I resent this pattern of conversation, it is a heuristic, a starting point that helps us transition into something more meaningful. Rather, I relish the opportunity to discover friendship without any shared experience other than the shared experience of humanity.
Admittedly, my recommendations and my musings are biased by my bent as an often unabashed extrovert. I’m sure that many of the strangers I have imposed myself upon were irked by the enthusiasm of a wide-eyed 19-year-old, trying as they were to find some peace and quiet. Don’t expect every interaction with a stranger to turn into something meaningful. It is the conversations that don’t gain any traction that give ones that do so much more value.
So, the next time you see a kind-faced stranger who seems to be open to conversation on a long transit during which you’d otherwise be on TikTok, say hello. Listen to your parents and don’t accept mind-altering candy from them. Instead accept their stories of joy and defeat with sensitivity, their decades of lived wisdom with gratitude and through them accept the universe’s larger message about the wonders of human connection.