Sitting Next to Strangers

I took a total of four flights over my spring break last week. Overall these amount to around ten hours in the air with nothing to keep me company but the books I had brought along and any music I hadn’t grown tired of during midterm study sessions. I spent that time as I usually do- just with my thoughts and an occasional snack. Another way to look at it is that the common denominator across these trips was silence. I wish this had not been the case. Each flight I was seated in a window seat (by my own design) meaning I stayed next to strangers for several hours, but I may as well have been alone. Watching other passengers scramble for anything-but-a-middle seat as they boarded lead me to realize we were all looking for that solitude. More importantly it made me realize that we really don’t care for other people’s stories, but we might need them.

Why do we resist sitting next to strangers? I know I am not the only one who leaves just one extra seat between me and the next person in a movie theater, who stares at my toes when accompanied on an elevator ride, and so on and so forth. It seems like a regular human tendency to try to maintain our personal agenda in public. Of course, I understand this as a surface level behavior and a social norm, but what is behind this activity? I believe a large part of it is habit and the effort needed to break it. It is never the easiest or quickest choice to change up your routine. However, I think this is easily changed with a little will power. To me the important factor is a more selfish one. We funnel our energy into our own lives, and to even chat with a stranger is a distraction from that. I know- that’s a broad criticism of human kind, but I think it is warranted.

As fascinating as I am sure it was to take a journey into a human phenomenon, it does us no good unless we intend to use these observations for something. This missing purpose was inspired in me by the woman next to me in the air between Denver and Atlanta- we could really use each others stories right now. Now we must get in to the political side of things briefly, so just bear with me. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that socially, economically, etc. (pick your favorite -ally word) things are becoming more volatile across the globe. Especially here in this country we are struggling with a two-party skirmish. It is great to be active citizens and voters during this dilemma, but I want to ask for something extra. I think it is time for us all to become active listeners.

Most of the people we think of as being “on the other side” are people we have never spoken to before. Let us begin to fix that. Just imagine all the interesting things that man across the bus from you has to say. Some of them could rub you the wrong way but even this will teach you something. People older than you, younger than you, taller than you, shorter than you, all have a little piece of life you have never tasted before. Ask them to share. Much of the surprise over the results of the presidential election occurred because people who had never voted before showed up to the polls. These were stories most of us had never heard before. If we want to be able to balance the mixture that is our nation we simply need to be more prepared. I have so much hope that if we all communicated a bit more we could evade many problems before they ever arrived.

I know that mom and dad always said never to talk to strangers, but now that I am becoming an adult I think it is time to put that rule aside. If we really want things to start changing we must start somewhere- why not here? Reach out to your neighbors, it is okay to start small. Be ready to listen and to share. Speak up when a compliment pops into your head. Double check that a stranger is feeling all right. Now, I understand that this is easier said than done. As a young, male, and able-bodied person, I have little to lose from being a bit more chatty while out in public. I do understand that this is hard for so many people. Shyness can be powerful, and staying safe is important as well. So, for anyone out there who feels I am making this sound far too easy I offer my own ears as a place for you to start. Send me an email, tell me your story. It doesn’t have to be relevant to this piece, it doesn’t have to be long. If you have something you want to say I want to hear it. If you are ready to feel just a little bit crazy then take these ideas to the streets. Listen to just one strangers story and I promise it will start to change yours.


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