How many of you know the story of Little Red Riding Hood? I do. I was told this Grimm’s fairy tale a lot when I was a child, about how a young girl gets into really big trouble when she befriends a Big Bad Wolf.
There’s a book called Pretty Salma by artist and teacher Niki Daly, which she calls a little red riding hood story from Africa, South Africa to be precise. In this retelling, when pretty Salma’s granny asks her to go to the market one day to buy a giant watermelon and a speckled rooster, she is told to go straight there and then come straight home — and warned not to talk to strangers. But just as she is about to leave the market with a full basket on her head, cunning Mr. Dog tricks Salma into speaking with him, and after that her beloved granny is in real danger, only finally to be rescued from a sure death by a ferocious bogeyman and his gang.
Don’t talk to strangers, it would seem, is a global warning.
One that I must have pretty frequently ignored when I was a child myself of eight or nine, when my mother wrote casually in a journal she kept of a cross-country camping trip from Maryland to California, a kind of a 1950s pre-memoir. Wherein she hand-recorded and then transcribed on a clunky manual typewriter a tale of moving her family, which included four smallish children, from one coast to the other: a harrowing journey fraught with irritations and dangers: whining kids tired of repetitive scenery, over-sized mosquitos, a jack-knifed U-Haul on a switchback mountain pass, flash floods, bitter cold, and bears in bathrooms.
Speaking of which, that was my particular assignment whenever we would arrive at a new campground: to check out the facilities, especially for my mother. Where were they in relation to the spot we had chosen (or about which we had no choice) and what was their level of cleanliness? It was this duty I was most likely performing when my mother recorded, in an exasperated tone, not worried about her little girl gone off on her own into the wilds of a state park, that “Martha,” and that’s what she called me, “Martha” had found some strangers to tell our family secrets to. Like always.
I don’t know about these secrets, don’t remember what I said or didn’t say at eight or nine, but I do remember the feeling of at least temporarily escaping the confines of the crowded, littered backseat of a car, which I had shared for hours with three rowdy, quarrelsome brothers (and a stack of comic books), with my parents in the front seat in their own world, driving or navigating, arguing about rest stops and the folly of having taken this blasted vacation at all. Which made me feel anxious and oddly lonely.
I remember the eager feeling of having found companionship, however momentary. That these small conversations with, yes, strangers outside a tent or a trailer somewhere in the American Heartland, was good for — I will say it — my young soul. A girl talking with people she did not know, had never met before, would most likely never meet again. Who maybe listened, who maybe had something interesting to say.
The chances of anything bad happening in a very public campground in broad daylight were slim, but at least a bit possible, and yes, even then, in those good old days we forget contained their own share of child kidnappings and other horrors.
But somehow, amidst the warnings I got, like other millions of kids, about not speaking with strangers, about coming straight home from the children’s library or the playground or the donut store, I also got the experience of connecting with unfamiliar people along my way. That, as a Chinese proverb reminds us, in danger (or was it crisis) there is also, at least sometimes, positive opportunity.
Not to say that these admonitions should be dropped. Not to say that at all.
But as adults we may need to relook at this message, keeping what still is true about it, but opening ourselves to the possibility that there is something to lose in keeping silent in our casual public lives so much of the time.
There are a lot of emerging psychological and sociological data and a lot of articles and blog posts out there these days encouraging those of us adults of all ages to re-examine this warning about avoiding what we might have thought as useless, unnecessary, perhaps even still dangerous encounters with strangers. I began my search thread as we say now, after having been enticed by a link on a site called Boomerly — aimed at women of a certain reluctantly advancing age — about how what we call small talk can make a big difference when it comes to combatting loneliness in life after 60.
This blog piece describes the all too common phenomenon of silently passing people on the street with our headphones on, ordering our “triple shot lattes without so much as a word or greeting to the barista,” perhaps actively hooked up to our cell phone. That we are missing crucial opportunities in these everyday social interactions to be happier, to give and receive empathy and encouragement, that had previously thought to be limited to romantic relationships and intimate friendships.
This tendency to choose to minimize contacts with people we do not know or do not think we know has been called a social efficiency bias — an expedited strategy for getting done what we need to get done on a daily basis. Researchers at the University of British Columbia, after having studied this, report that the choice to choose efficiency or what we see as increased productivity — to get that something more or bigger done — bypasses the reported increased happiness that comes from reaching out to strike up even a short conversation.
With those store clerks, security guards, servers, hair stylists, librarians, bank tellers, bartenders, and so many more.
In addition to the happiness correlation, there may be at least some correlation between heart health and talking to strangers. A fairly recent study undertaken at the University of Michigan would indicate, according to an article about it in The Atlantic magazine, that neighborly acts and interactions like watching a house, borrowing eggs, chitchatting over a fence or on the sidewalk, can increase what is described as cardiac prosperity. That some kind of bond, even just something of the “wave and smile” variety has its benefits.
Besides being a possible prescription for better health, even longevity, there are other benefits.
We tend to begin these conversations on more of an upbeat note than we might with our more familiar conversation partners — our parents, our siblings, our spouses, even our best friends. Which forced or not, does tend to rub off on our own ongoing mood once we are done.
We get practice in communication skills and confidence just in the increased amount of practice in putting ourselves out and having a go.
We expand our perspective, gain street smarts, meet more people not like us which hopefully shifts our world view.
For any of you who might (or might not) have been thinking that this encouragement of deliberately seeking out opportunities for chit-chat might have a (female) gender bias, with visions of gossip over clotheslines popping up, the Art of Manliness blog featured a lengthy post by a father of a three-year-old son who wrote that one of the unexpected changes he discovered once he became a parent was how much more he was talking with strangers, perhaps very simply because kids, in his words, are great ice breakers.
Small children, he has observed, have no trepidation about going up to and chatting up strangers. In fact, his child might well go off with strangers — hence our tales about dangerous wolves and cunning African dogs — and the stern and necessary warnings.
The Manliness blogger, whose name I could not find, decided to embark on an experiment — or practice — of his own, unhinged from any academic setting. For 21 days he made the effort, as he wrote, to talk with strangers at every opportunity he could find. And record his experiences. He did not (in his own words) roam around public parks or frequent Greyhound bus stations “accosting every stranger” he met, but he made more of a habit of sitting in public spaces by himself or sharing seating — and then finding ways to speak with those seatmates.
At the end of this time, he shared some anecdotes and some findings. He described encountering a man sitting on the side of a hotel pool and found out that he had just moved to the area with his family from Chicago, which gave our Manliness blogger the chance to talk about the community, the schools, and neighborhoods.
Another day, instead of just waiting out the time when a set of tree trimmers came and did their pruning work, he took the occasion to ask one of them, only half-jokingly, if they fell out of trees frequently. The trimmer responded, almost never, even though he had been climbing trees for a living for 27 years. Our blogger reported that he had loved this conversation because he learned something new.
He told of a brief talk with a woman who was taking the same commuter ferry with him, which died quickly, like so many others on that boat, because most people were used to being left alone with their e-books and their iPods, and could not break out of that pattern. But it helped to try to find that sweet spot — that time just before the other person wired up.
Besides learning that sometimes the mission to engage in small talk would fail miserably, despite his best efforts, he offered that there are ways to improve the odds: toting a dog or a kid, especially a very small one; wearing what we used to call a conversation piece, like an attractive or unusual tie (my husband has a favorite one with pizza slices on it which gives him the opening to let someone he has only just met know that he is not only personally a pizza addict but that he used to write for the pizza trade industry) or a large necklace or other eye grabbing piece of jewelry (I am known now to hoist up a pant leg to show off a very bold tattoo from a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, monkeys and all).
Besides drawing some attention to ourselves, paying a compliment, of course works like a charm. Your dog is cute. I like your briefcase. That scarf is nice.
As he pointed out, not all efforts to speak with strangers even got started, in fact they are often difficult to initiate — even for extroverts — and he learned to keep his expectations realistically low. No, in those 21 days, he did not make any long-term connections. No permanent friendships emerged. The connections were fleeting, mostly superficial, mostly cheerful, and were not going to solve any personal or political problems.
They made him happier, made him more socially agile, and gave him a window on the world he would not have had otherwise, just as he had thought going in.
Of course, the possibility of a successful encounter is influenced by broader cultural norms.
A friend of mine who grew up in Texas and has lived in the Atlanta area for going on a decade now told me about a time when she and her daughter, who was beginning her freshman year at a university in Scotland. She remembers that they were already feeling pretty much out of sync when on that rainy afternoon she and her daughter spotted brightly colored umbrellas in a sea of black ones, and knew they were sticking out when they were in a line (or a queue) waiting to pay for groceries when she started speaking to two other college girls ahead of them. They not only did not respond, she remembers, but they turned their back on her.
And in her own lifelong social experiment, my friend has noticed that certain kinds of people — broadly and crudely categorized — overweight ones, grey haired ones, ones with different ethnicities, are often either not sought out for small talk or ignored when they initiate it.
Small talk does not usually transmute, by the way, into pastoral care, a fact I had the striking experience of relearning just a couple of weeks ago when we were on a day tour bus in Ireland with some 30, mostly European, other travelers. We had left the States earlier that week in the middle of a family medical crisis, and I felt so far away and helpless. At some point mid-way through our day together, after having engaged in chatter with another woman about where we both came from (she was from Kansas City) and a little about who we were (she helped run a financial planning business with her husband and has a couple of highly educated adult children), I told her in some detail about my daughter who had just given premature birth to a daughter and then underwent major surgery. How worried I was. How I didn’t really know what to do.
Clearly, this was TMI for her. Her response was literally no response at all. She went back to looking out the window at the wondrously green countryside and asking the driver every few minutes to turn the air up or down.
But what I also learned in that moment was that it was OK. I did not pursue that line of conversation, no harm had been done to her as far as I could tell, and in the telling of what was going on for me and my family, I did feel less alone with it. I felt safe enough to speak my emotional truth to a perfectly imperfect stranger, with whom I most likely shared very little, except that we were from the same country, around the same age, and were on the same sightseeing excursion in the wilds of West Ireland.
Quaker spiritual counselor and educator Parker Palmer always reminds us that we are essentially communal creatures, relational beings. Personal sharing, he would probably say, is most often for the sharer. It recharges our souls without any need for an active response at all. Because while we may need a listener for our speaking, what we say must and does trigger our own work.
There are times when we need to be able to speak into what he has named circles of trust — whether constructed intentionally for this purpose or random ones. A circle that can be as accidental as an encounter on a park bench, or a bus ride. Or ideally more deliberate, like the chalice circles and covenant groups that have taken hold in UU congregations, including Emerson, in the past decade. Where ideally both people who know each other well and people who may not know each other at all, past coffee hour conversation, can move in deeper directions.
What power there is for us, then, in our of course judicious speaking with strangers! We have often been taught and told that we are to welcome the stranger for the good of those we wish to invite into our community, to approach them with this intention.
Yes, that is true. But it is also just as true that when we talk to those we do not know, we are the ones who are also given gifts.
Gifts of learning. Gifts of understanding. Gifts of Happiness.
May it be so.