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By: Jennifer La Grassa

As children, we’re told to never talk to strangers. This firm command from our teachers and parents could be what has potentially engrained the avoidant response that we express when confronted by someone who is unfamiliar. When someone approaches me and asks “Do you know where the nearest (insert a location) is?” my brain automatically conjures up the memory of my mom firmly saying, “Don’t talk to strangers!” the first time I ever walked home from school by myself. With my mom’s voice ringing in my ears, my initial reaction to the stranger’s inquiry involves a shoulder shrug accompanied by a headshake, as I briskly walk away. Up until recently, this was the way I handled being confronted by, what I’d hope were, innocent strangers who simply lacked a GPS.

It wasn’t until I entered university that strangers became of great interest to me. Granted most “strangers” you meet in first year aren’t all that strange, as they are also 18 years old and just about as naïve as you are. But it’s not enough to just meet a person for them to no longer be a stranger. I’ve met so many people during my three years at McMaster and yet the most I know about any of them from the conversations we’ve had is their name, program and maybe their hometown. To my team leaders, fellow classmates and professors, even though I may see you every day and exchange small pleasantries with you, you’re still just as much of a stranger to me as I am to you.

Why is it so difficult for us to have meaningful conversations? It’s almost as if we have to wait until we become completely familiarized with a person before we can escape that “small talk” phase of the relationship and actually have a substantial conversation. I recently read a New York Times article whose author expressed how exhausted he was of having meaningless conversations about what someone does for a living or how the weather was that day. If you know me, then you would know that when I have absolutely nothing to say to someone the first thing I’ll bring up is the weather. Even though I know it’s such a poor conversation starter, it’s my go-to line when talking to people I don’t know well enough.

The author goes on to say that it’s really about how we phrase the question that will draw a different response from our co-conversationalist. He claims that instead of asking, “what do you do for a living?” we should ask, “what work are you most passionate about?” and rather than say, “where have you traveled to?” we should ask, “what place that you visited most inspired you and why?” Although this may seem intimidating to some, it is these types of conversations that truly allow us to connect with others.

I decided to test out the author’s suggestions and the universe must have really wanted me to, as it gave me two opportunities to do so recently. On my bus ride to Toronto, I ended up sitting beside a first-year McMaster student who decided to strike up a conversation with me. We conversed the entire road trip through which I learned, among many other things, of his transition into first year, his relationship with his sister and what he found most interesting about his program. We walked to the subway together and before we parted, it dawned on me that I had just learned so much about a person whom I had only known for forty minutes and whom I would probably never see again.

That same weekend, back in Hamilton, I had taken the wrong bus with a friend and at the last stop in Dundas, the young driver looked over at us and exclaimed, “you took the wrong bus didn’t you?” This led into a conversation about how he got to be a bus driver at the age of 25 and how life has so many unexpected turns that lead you to so many unexpected places. The willingness of the bus driver and the young McMaster student to open up and share a small fraction of their life taught me so much about myself and has changed the way in which I will conduct future conversations.

What’s most important is to be open to having these types of conversations. We shouldn’t pass someone off as being weird if they start asking us in-depth questions, unless they start asking for your address or credit card number, in which case quickly walking away in the opposite direction would be the appropriate response. There is so much we can learn from each other, if only we take the time to do so.

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