On Connecting To Strangers
The Sidewalk Talk Blog
Last month, I was sitting on a sidewalk in Heidelberg, Germany. A man had been watching us for thirty minutes so a volunteer walked over and invited him to sit and talk.
I was privileged with getting to listen to him. Neither German, nor English, were his first language. And yet, we found our way together, cobbling together a mix of German and English.
Last month I also got to hear the leadership stories of Dr. Narendra Thagunna in Nepal and Patricia Maria Martins, in São Paulo, Brazil. We did not share a common language. Being a foreigner, learning a language, gave me a special kind of reverence for their courage to speak in their non-native language for our interview series and podcast.
Not judging non-native speakers is a shift inside me. As a teen, I had assumptions I made about people who did not speak the same language as me. "They are hard of hearing" or "they are not as smart." One of the great joys of aging and practicing listening at Sidewalk Talk is how my brain has changed and it quite naturally no longer makes that assumption or at least I notice assumptions I make about people really quickly, now.
How do we listen, if we do not share the same language?
I quite literally deploy all the ingredients of HEAR, our new organizational training protocol, here at Sidewalk Talk. H is for Honor. E is for Embody. A is for Accept we Assume and Assumptions Check, and R is for respond.
I come with a deep intention to HONOR this person as whole and deserving of love and respect just because they are human. This intention shapes my wonder and curiosity, my respect, and my ability to stay silently reverent. Part of showing honor to someone who speaks a different language is to invite a person to teach me the exact correct pronunciation of their name. To share with me some of the favorite words from their language or if they are struggling with a word in my native language, can they teach me that word in their language, and I practice saying it with them, as a show of honor and respect for their native tongue and as a way to be in resonance with them.
I stay inside my own skin and stay as present as possible, but I also pay attention to their body language so we can share an EMBODIED experience. Getting too analytic, intellectually can make a person feel like they are in a petri dish. Instead, I am a big ball of ME and they get to be a big ball of THEM and I notice them as a total self and they notice me as a total self.
3. Assumptions check
I have become deeply curious about my assumption making brain. I make assumptions about others, about myself, about the world, and it is now a natural habit to question virtually every assumption I make. ASSUMPTIONS CHECK and ACCEPTANCE that all brains make assumptions helps me not make that fateful assumption that a different language spoken means hard of hearing, not intelligent, or any other assumptions a person can make.
My RESPONSES incorporate Honor, Embodiment, and Assumptions Checking. I am not merely repeating what I have heard but responding to "who this person is". In the simplest of terms, I let my heart speak.
Back to my exchange with the man in Heidelberg. As the man sat, he began to shiver. I noticed his jacket was not warm. I found a blanket and covered him with it. He smiled. He shared the essence of what was true for him. In some moments I could not understand the message exactly, but I could see and feel in my body the general music and I stayed with him and leaned forward and shared what I was hearing in word and energy. He smiled again. Then he said, I was feeling alone before I sat down. Now I am not. And in a way, I heard him better than I could, if our conversation had been filled with words.
I was pretty tickled by the research by Drs. Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder. You may have read about their work in this BBC article. Even Malcom Gladwell is getting in on the action with his latest book, Talking to Strangers. He feels strongly we need to do more of this talking to strangers bit. See the video above.
Here is the quick summary of the BBC article:
Perhaps we have our understanding of personal growth all wrong.
...well, not ALL wrong but perhaps we undervalue the power of stranger interactions.
Why? Strangers bring no baggage to the dialogue and more often, stimulate less of ours. When you go to your family’s house if you always felt second fiddle to your older sister there is something in the way of a pure interaction. If you walk in and your parents are talking excitedly to your sister about her new job, the part of you that feels left out is doing some of the connecting.
Imagine talking with a stranger.
You have no history. No beef. No hidden skeletons in the closet (except for your bias which is why Gladwell suggests we need to do it more - to eradicate them). You get to experience a part of you that might be next to impossible to experience except with a stranger. A purer self. A self free from obligation.
Some basic listening skills help us get the most out of stranger interaction.
We have to check our biases - positive and negative based on race, gender, identity, age, dress etc. That is why I get excited about listening at Sidewalk Talk. I get to practice dropping those assumptions and how lovely for me because dropping them frees me up as a listener too to surprise and glee. Not interrupting and allowing yourself to get into a flow of curiosity with “I want to know who you are” as your guiding principle.
Two strangers at the grocery store.
Last week a friend of mine was very sing-songy about a stranger interaction she had that day. Her husband thought the whole exchange was crazy (it wasn’t). She was doing her weekly grocery shopping. At the butcher counter, she heard a man ask the butcher for an “American” preparation of the salmon he just put in his basket. The butcher was confused and too busy to take the time to understand what this man was asking. So my friend asked “Hi, maybe I can help. What are you trying to do?”
The man explained he had been living in the US from India for three years and wanted to try to cook some fresh salmon. They both lived in Seattle where fresh fish is abundant. This gentleman shared he had mostly kept close to other Indian friends in the area and mostly ate Indian food but had made a decision that day that he wanted to know more about the culture he was living in. They had a nice exchange about his experiences so far and my friend shared her love of Indian cuisine. So they had a fun little exchange where they each agreed to share recipes with each other. She would email him her best salmon recipes if he would email her his best dishes from his hometown back in India.
My friend told me they both left the conversation with big grins on their faces. And she was touched and amazed at the power of a stranger interaction. So simple. Free. It reminds me of the pub culture in some ways. When I was a bartender in college I had several people come sit at my bar during the day, they did not order alcohol, but they did come to talk and connect with me and other strangers that happened to come in.
I get the need for solitude and do not want to downplay its importance.
But perhaps we confuse solitude for avoidance. I challenge you to experiment with asking one open-ended question to a stranger who seems open to receiving this kind of attention this week and see what happens. Specifically what assumptions do you make; about the effort involved? about who this person is? about how you will feel after compared to how you do feel?
Stranger things have happened.