Why I Talk To Strangers

I'm stuck at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport in Atlanta for the next few hours. Of course, I live in Atlanta, so it's always strange for me to have to connect through my home city while on trips. But it's even stranger when there's a delay on that connection, and I end up stuck here for hours at a time.

It's not the actual being stuck that does it. That's just annoying, as it is in any city. Something about the idea that my home is literally a few miles away, but I can't just leave and go there, trips me out. Some sort of weird prisoner's syndrome, I guess. I'm sure someone with a lot more schooling than I've had has come up with a name for it.

One big advantage to my current situation: I never really get to check out the restaurants and shops at Hartsfield, because I'm always showing up just in time to catch a flight, or dashing off one to go home. So being here on connections gives me a chance to eat at one of the best airport restaurants in the nation, One Flew South. It's a lovely place. The food is astounding. The ambiance is relaxing. The drinks are exotic.

The only problem: it doesn't open until 11 AM, and it was only 10:30 AM.

So to kill some time, I thought I'd hit the food court and have a cup of coffee and write a little. I got halfway through that plan when I noticed a woman with an odd characteristic. Not that she was weird or anything. She was a nice looking lady, to be sure. Pretty. Snazzy dresser. Really nice hair. And she had a huge black eye.

Naturally, my curiosity was piqued, as yours would be. It's not every day you see someone with a black eye, and it's especially rare to see it in the airport. But to see a pretty lady in the airport with a black eye... It's hard for your brain not to run in spirals as it writes all sorts of narratives about what could have happened.

So, while my brain told me stories about possible domestic abuse, or a particularly ill-fated bike ride, or a freak accident involving a hunk of a passing jet liner shearing off and falling on her car, I stared at her.

Now, it's not like this was a decision. I didn't think to myself "You know what I'll do? I'll just sit here and stare at this lady whose appearance is at least two standard deviations from the norm." It just kinda happened. And she just kinda caught me.


So I smiled, and I did something I've been doing a lot lately -- I got up and I went over and I talked to her.

Since January of this year, I've made a goal of talking to at least one stranger a day. Of course, if you've met me, you know that this isn't particularly strange for me. I can talk to anyone, about anything, and I take great joy in doing it. But for the most part, most strangers I meet come with some sort of introduction. Maybe a friend introduces us. Maybe we both end up aggravated at an airline counter. Maybe we're both looking for the half and half to be replenished at the coffee bar and we strike up a conversation.

This goal isn't about running into strangers and finding reasons to talk. This is about flat out approaching someone new and different and talking to them, every single day that the opportunity presents itself. And it has been one of the most rewarding things I've ever done.

I've been on the internet for going on twenty years now, and in that time, I've seen "social networking" become "Social Networking" and beyond. It's become the de facto method of communication between even the closest friends. Likes and comments have replaced handshakes and smiles. And while I'm not planning on issuing some sort of anti-digital manifesto, I have found myself pulling away from the internet by and large for a while now.

I've decided to build an entirely new social network in my life. Instead of connecting via Facebook, I've decided to simply connect face to face. And it's been lovely.

I met Linus in New York in February. I walked up to a guy in a coffee shop who was writing Perl code. I told him I was sorry for interrupting him, but I was very curious what he was creating in Perl in 2013, instead of using PHP or Objective C in an iPhone app. He told me about a lightweight "white box" software he hoped to sell to companies to help streamline end of month reporting. We had a great conversation about how he quit his job and started following his heart, because he knew that this software had a future. He was feeling down in the dumps -- he couldn't get any traction on it.  I handed him my card and asked him to keep me posted, and if he ever needed encouragement, write me. He did a few times, and I cheered him on.

I just got an email from him a month ago. His company was just purchased for several million dollars. I got to be party to someone's amazing success story.

In March in Indianapolis, I met Susan, a single mother of two recent college graduates. Her laptop had a GelaSkin cover with a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on it, and I thought that was pretty cool. She was embarking on a tour of the United States, something she'd dreamed of doing since she was a teenager. Of course, getting pregnant by her high school sweetheart and having to raise a child changed that plan for her (or at least, delayed it). And when she had her second child the next year, her then-husband died while working in a factory. He was 19, she was 18. She emails me pictures from every monument she visits.

I met Stephen, a short order cook who just opened his own restaurant, in Mobile, AL in March at a gas station. He was wearing a Levi's Button Your Fly shirt from the 90's. He is an avid thrift shop hunter, and found that gem one day along with some original Nike Flight Lites from 1993. He invited me to his place, and I had the best grilled cheese and bacon sandwich I'd ever had in my life.

On a flight to Dallas in February, I met professional wakeboarder Adam Eerington, who was sporting an old school Nike SB bag that I actually had in high school. We hit it off swimmingly (pun intended), and I've seen him demo a few times now at various lakes in various cities I visit.

To date, I've met 122 amazing people by just randomly striking up conversations and saying "Hi." To date, 121 of them have been really nice, cordial, or outright awesome. Only one guy, a stockbroker, was a dick to me. And if you've read even one thing I've written, you know I was a dick right back. But that's another story for another time.

 I keep in touch with a few dozen of them. Some of them entertain me with a short conversation. Some of them kill time with me when I'm in coffee shops or at conventions. And then today, I met Ashely, the pretty girl in the denim dress with a black eye in the airport.

When I went up to her, her smile said two things: "I totally busted you staring at me, and I know why you were."

"So," I said, "You know what I'm going to ask..."

She laughed. "Yeah, I figured that's why you came over..."

"Don't worry, I'm not a creep," I told her. "I'm a writer, and I write stories in my head about things and people I see in the places I visit."

"...Okay, so a big tattooed guy stares at women in airports and writes stories about them in his head?" She asked. "No, that's not creepy at all!" She laughed and told me she was just kidding, and it was totally okay.

"Well, if it's not too personal, can I ask what happened?"

"Sure," she said. "But it's a pretty lame story..."

"Okay, the mere fact you said that about a black eye means it's probably an AWESOME story!" I said with a laugh.

She told me about how she was assembling a laundry rack one day, and while frustrated, pulled a rod just a little too hard through the assembly. It went straight into her eye.

"I had to have seven stitches," she said, showing me the scar.

"Jesus!" I said.

"Yep... It's been this way for a month and a half."

I sat with her and she shared her story with me over coffee. She recently moved out on her own after a long term relationship. It was the first time she's ever lived on her own, and she's determined to make it without anyone's help, despite the fact that her father offered to come help her put together her new furniture.

"That's what I get for being stubborn, I guess!" she said with a laugh.

"Hey, look at it this way," I said. "You just figured out a really great way not to put together a laundry rack!"

We chatted a bit longer. 11 AM hit and I bid adieu so that I could go and enjoy some of the finest food the airport and, really, the city of Atlanta, has to offer (it was Duck Noodle Soup with a garnish of smoked sea salt, if you're curious).

Another friend made. Another crappy day made better by simply talking to people.

It may not be your bag, but I recommend trying it out. You don't have to be a weirdo about it, nor do you have to be a showman of any sort. I recommend picking something striking about someone and simply asking them about it. Maybe you recognize their brand of shoes or bag, or their cool 90's shirt, or their laptop. Or maybe, you can simply say "Hi, I'm bored and thought I'd talk to a stranger."

Let me know the results.