Interacting with Strangers and Lonely Men

When I was still living in Chicago, a friend of mine and I boarded a bus near Buena and North Broadway. I don't remember where we were heading, but we paid our fares and continued our conversation. We sat on the seats near the front that face each other. There was a woman sitting across from us who wore two things of note: a pair of high heel shoes donning bows that seemed to be made out of mirrors, and an all-to-familiar frown. At some point, during a lull in our conversation, I said, "Excuse me," to the woman, "I love your shoes."

"Thank you!" she said. That frown disappeared, never to return, at least for the duration. The cost of a CTA bus ride: $2.25. Making a stranger smile: priceless.

I actually lived just a hundred feet or so from that bus stop in Buena Park. From there, I would commute to my front-of-house job at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Thanks to this job, I had recently acquired a whole slew of interesting friends and associates, some of whom became very close, long-term friends. Nevertheless, I was struggling with the half-life of a broken heart (the big one, really), and this made my day-to-day an emotional struggle.

Sometimes it took everything I had just to leave my apartment, even for food. And I will never forget the day, in such a state, I stepped out of the courtyard of my building and almost immediately was asked by a pleasant stranger, "Hi! How are you?"

"I'm fine," I said. What I should have said was, "I'm fine. Now!" because that's really all it took: One person, with one modicum of kindness, in one important moment, to make me feel that I wasn't alone in the world. That maybe, just maybe, I belong here and not everyone outside of my apartment was a threat.

Interacting with strangers has always been fascinating to me. Such interactions have been some of the best, and yes, some of the worst, experiences of my life. Sure, it's a risk. But as I once noted to a friend whilst riding the "L", gesturing to the other passengers, "Anyone of these people could, potentially, blow your mind." You have no idea who you might be sitting next to. And you never will if you don't engage.

There does seem to be a consensus that to be left alone is what most people desire from their commute. And yet, according to a study done by a behavioral science professor in Chicago, given the opportunity, people are more likely to engage than one might think. An hypothesis was made that maybe 50% or so of people approached by strangers commuting on the Metra would be willing to strike up a conversation. The data of the study shows that number to be closer to 100%.

This podcast contains more details of that study in its final few minutes, but most of this story is about the friendships, or lack thereof, that men, specifically, have in their lives. Being a male myself, and a bit of a loner at times, I find the studies sited regarding such fascinating as well. I do believe that men getting in touch with and expressing their feelings might in fact be what saves the planet, if the antithesis in our current leadership is any indication. In any event, I hope that you will glean something useful from this podcast, regardless of your sex or level of misanthropy.

NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, challenges us to strike up a conversation with one stranger this week. Just thinking about it makes me smile. And a bit nervous.

Click here to access the podcast

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