Every year, by the grace of God, I fly home to Connecticut for several days in the early part of December. In the few short years since I’ve relocated, we’ve established a cherished tradition – Sisters’ Christmas – and carried on with the decades-old tradition of “B-Family Christmas.” It all happens within a whirlwind of days filled with joy, abundance, indulgence, shared confidences and oh-so-much love.
One couldn’t ask for more. But this year, even before the festivities began, “more” is just what I unexpectedly received. Deplaning, I was aware of an extra dose of seasonally inspired spring in my step. The fact that my travels went smoothly was a relief, but it was the conversation with two strangers who occupied the middle seat, to the right of my preferred window seat, that made the difference.
On the packed Greensboro to Charlotte flight, a younger woman sat next to me. One of us complimented the other on our cool, holiday inspired nails, and that simple nod to indulgence sparked our conversation. It turned out that she, too, was off for a sisters’ Christmas celebration. Talk of sisters led to talk of birth order, children, and somehow, almost inevitably, the tricky business of aging. Our conversation took on a life of its own, carried forth by topics of shared interest and concern, then dwindled, naturally. But just as we were about to land, this “stranger” turned to me and said:
“You know what I’m really terrified of?”
“Menopause. I’ve heard so many bad things and I don’t know what to expect.”
“I get it, believe me. And by trusting myself, I got through it. Trust yourself. You will, too.”
That conversation stayed with me as I made my way to the next gate with time to spare. I sensed that something meaningful had transpired, and that maybe my seat partner needed to speak to her fear in a safe, anonymous place, with a safe, caring stranger.
I have since learned from research on connecting with strangers that many of us underestimate the “well-being benefits” of this type of interaction.
Jaime L. Kurtz, Ph.D. explains:
“We tend to think that close others—friends, romantic partners, and family members—are our biggest sources of connection, laughter, and warmth. While that may well be true, researchers have also recently found that interacting with “weak ties”—people that we don’t know very well—actually brings a boost in mood and feelings of belonging that we didn’t expect.”
Further research confirms that this effect also holds true for introverts who underestimate the good feelings they’ll experience from interacting with people they hardly know or don’t know at all!
But I digress.
On the longer flight that would whisk me to the snow-dusted hills and valleys of my home state, I hunkered into my preferred window seat. Within minutes, a guy in a Harley tee shirt and a baseball cap settled in with a wrapped hamburger in tow. I wish I could recall how our conversation sprung to life, but regardless, we talked for the better part of two hours. He was in the process of the unusual relocation back to the Northeast which is always intriguing to me. As one thread led to another, I learned that his grandfather fought in the Second World War, just as my dad had, and that they were both from Eastern Europe. At some point, we exchanged first names and contact information. I don’t expect I’ll reach out to him. Nor do I expect that he will reach out to me. But extending ourselves in that way just felt right. It “acknowledged” the connection we had made.
I know well the dangers of talking to strangers. We all do. And yet, we can do so in environments and situations that our gut tells us are safe. Why? Because doing so enriches us. It reminds us that we are all connected – simply by virtue of being human. And if you ask “the experts”, they will add that by developing the habit of talking to strangers, we stand to:
Improve our health
Enhance our sense of belonging
Increase our empathy
Get “unstuck” from our own patterns of thought and perception
That’s more than enough for me…