I wouldn't describe myself as an eavesdropper, per se, but given the opportunity to overhear, I'm likely to listen. I love to hear other people's stories, which is why I love to listen to This American Life, The Moth, StoryCorps and This I Believe. Everybody has a story - you just need to listen.
The other day I was trying on some clothes in the dressing room at the hospice thrift store when I had the opportunity to overhear an interview between the store manager and a volunteer candidate. Stuck in a dressing room, I really had no choice but to listen. The manager explained that the goal of the staff was to create an inviting environment in the store, where people were free to come in just to hang out and chat. "You might be the only person they have a conversation with that day," she said.
I believe this to be very true. Just before going into the dressing room, I had a nice chat with an older man in the woman's blouse aisle. He had made eye contact and smiled, and I said, "Hello! How are you today?"
"I'm wonderful, and getting better every day," he said with a smile on his face.
"Wow! That's really promising," I said, feeling that some days I feel quite the opposite. He went on to explain that after 8 rounds of chemotherapy, his cancer was completely gone, and life was good. He had a story to share, and he wanted to share it. I happened to be in the right place at the right time to hear it.
So I made an effort the rest of the day to be receptive to opportunities to talk to strangers, chances to hear more stories. I chatted about how fun it is to dress babies with a grandma at the cash register who was purchasing clothes for her granddaughters. I talked about purses and shirts at the check out stand at Whole Foods. I discussed reading and favorite book series with the woman behind me in line at Barnes and Noble. Her stack of seven or eight thick paperbacks intrigued me, and all I had to do was ask her about them.
Yes, despite what I was told in safety classes as a child, I talk to strangers. I have a strong feeling that I come from a long line of people who talk to strangers. My dad talks to everyone, and I'm inclined to think that his dad did too. I don't warn my children not to talk to strangers, after all, aren't strangers just friends you haven't yet made? Keeping children safe is more about teaching and modeling, and less about instilling fear. If kids never talk to strangers, they will miss out on some incredible learning experiences.
My daughter and I were walking down our street the other day when she said, "I bet if I tried harder I could make a lot more friends right here in our neighborhood."
I bet she wouldn't have to try very hard. Just listen and say "hello, how are you?" at the right time, to the right person. That's how I've heard some great stories and made most of my friends.
And by the way, I don't actually have a shirt that reads "I Talk To Strangers" - though wouldn't it be cool if I did? For years now I've wanted to make screen printed tees (they're all the rage, in case you haven't overheard), but I haven't gotten around to figuring out the whole screen printing process. Then after seeing a flickr friend's post process tattoo (that's right - she picniked it right onto her skin!), it hit me - I could "make" my tees online. So don't be surprised if you see a lot more t-shirt covered bust shots around here. It's just my hypothetical t-shirt company. It's much faster and easier than learning to screen print.