talk to strangers tattoo

Talk to Strangers

Who’s trippin’ down the streets of the city
Smilin’ at everybody she sees?
Who’s reachin’ out to capture a moment?
Everyone knows it’s Windy

The Association, 1967

I am a huge extrovert. I’m often told that my laughter can be heard in a crowded room (sorry, not sorry!) and I absolutely love talking to people, any people. I’m from the Midwest which means it’s in my nature to say “Hey there! How’s it going?” as I walk past strangers on the street. Sometimes they smile and answer back and sometimes they don’t, depending where I am at the time. Sometimes I even surprise myself with who I talk to and where those conversations lead*.

When the original lockdown happened in spring of 2020, all of us extroverts were sending out SOS signals. It’s just not natural for us to be isolated from people. I present Exhibit A, shared with me originally by my friend and fellow Chatty Cathy, Kristie:

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Kristie and I messaged each other, laughing so hard at that ridiculous meme, while identifying with it heavily. We felt seen. But the lockdown wasn’t going to last long anyway, right? Maybe a week or two? Oof.

I remember in the early days when I was still going into the grocery store, before I started ordering my groceries for pickup, speeding through the aisles and throwing items into my cart but also desperately trying to make eye contact with another masked human so I could nod in that way that says, “Hey, what’s up?” It was tough because everyone was head down, focused on getting their own groceries and getting the heck back out of there and back to the house where they weren’t vulnerable to the virus.

The isolation gave me fits in the beginning. How much television could I possibly watch? How long would I have to stay away from the gym? Target? My family?? I cried every couple of days. And then…the being alone just didn’t bother me as much. It became normal. I still needed people and talked to my friends and family a lot on the phone and on Zoom, but being stuck at home wasn’t as soul-crushing after a while.

Since things have opened up, I have had to work on that social muscle again, believe it or not. I never thought that I would be the type to get “peopled out” so easily and so quickly, but suddenly, I was.

To remedy that, I’ve been talking to everyone I can, for any reason I can come up with. I’m back to greeting people on the street. When we go to shows, I smile and say hello to whomever is in the seat next to me. Sometimes if it’s a concert, I’ll ask if they have seen the artist previously. Or if I notice that they have purchased a t-shirt, I’ll ask how it the merch table looked. I make conversation with cashiers and with servers, even more than I did before. Sitting at a restaurant bar while dining alone in Boston I had a lovely conversation with an empty nester couple from California, something that I will remember whenever I think of that city. I do my best on a daily basis to create verbal experiences with people I’ve never seen before and will never see again, without being creepy, of course. Talking to strangers has become a real adrenaline boost for me; I missed it without even realizing how much.

Recently I had a whole moment with an older woman at our local farm stand. I was standing in line behind her with my strawberries, and she reached out for the okra. I can’t stand okra. It stems from when I attended high school here: okra was served as a veggie side quite often as a part of hot lunch, and it was always slimy. The woman was gently pinching different pieces of okra, and I was fascinated.

I asked, “How do you know which ones are ready to buy?” She launched into a whole explanation about how you don’t want them too firm, because they become too hard to digest and taste woody and bitter.

Still hating okra but finding this woman delightfully amusing, I asked, “How do you cook them?”

“Ooh,” she said. “I cook a bunch of green beans on the stove and when they’re nearly done, I put the okra in there! You can’t cook it for too long or it gets slimy.” Then she told me about how her twin granddaughters love how she makes okra and she is going to be teaching them how to do it very soon.

It was her turn to pay for her okra, and by now two other women had joined in on the conversation. As she took her bag from the cashier and turned to walk away, I wished her a happy weekend. She winked at me and said, “You have a blessed day!”

I will probably never see that woman again, of course. It doesn’t matter. That exchange was a highlight of my weekend, and I can’t wait for the next interesting conversation, with someone else.

It got me thinking about how all of that isolation during the pandemic didn’t just hinder our collective mental health; it really damaged us socially. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get back to a state of being together that feels like it did before. And our country is so angry right now. We are all in need of care, and kindness.

Talking to strangers and finding out how they tick, what they enjoy, what is important to them, and even how to cook a really yucky vegetable will help us all move forward as a community of humans. I’m ready to do the work. Are you**?

*Remember that time I got into a fender bender and proceeded to make a lunch date with the woman in the other car? That was awesome.

**This is directed more at my fellow extroverts, of course.

Thanks to my friend Katie at VG’s Bakery in Knoxville, who is REALLY good at talking to strangers, for allowing me to use a picture of her awesome tattoo!