Discovering the Power of Human Connection in the Strangest Places

“I am obsessed with talking to strangers.”

This one phrase in Kio Stark’s TED talk had me completely hooked.  I, too, am obsessed with talking to strangers.  Kio described what I had long experienced on a visceral level but had yet to articulate.  

I make it a habit to engage with strangers routinely in my day-to-day life.  Sometimes this interaction is a simple smile and a friendly hello.  Other times, it is a quick conversation in the checkout line at the grocery store.  My years as a doctor and therapist have confirmed what I consider to be a fundamental human need – to be seen and heard.  Looking at people and acknowledging them has, therefore, seemed like an honest way to help satisfy that need.  As Kio explains, it’s like saying, “I see you there”.  In return, these brief encounters remind me to be mindful and present in-the-moment.  They help me to feel alive and connected and create opportunities for little unexpected pleasures.

Secrets of a Happy Life: Shared Stories, Shared Intimacy, Shared Humanity

The feeling we get from the brief interactions we have with strangers is what sociologists refer to as “fleeting intimacy”.  While the term seems fitting in some ways, it underrepresents the impact this type of connection can have on people’s lives.  These experiences can be profoundly moving.  They can remind us of our shared humanity.  They can humble us.  They can inspire us.  And they can change us in ways that are far more enduring than fleeting.

Over the years, I have taken many trips alone or spent portions of trips alone, both for work and pleasure.  Some of my most memorable encounters with strangers have occurred during these travels, when I have broken from normal routine and had time to “expand” beyond a quick smile or comment.  Sometimes these expanded encounters have started with a question, other times with a sincere compliment or anecdote.  Where they have led is to a soulful disclosure, an admission of vulnerability, a revealing of raw emotion.  I have had the privilege of learning secrets never before shared.  I have heard stories that made me roar with laughter and others that I still cry about years later.

Sometimes I reflect back on these unexpected experiences and wonder what they meant to the strangers I shared them with.  Did the elderly widower I snacked with in a Soho coffee shop one blustery February morning mean it when he said I had pulled him from despair?  Does the young Japanese woman who spontaneously took time off work to teach me how to make matcha and lead me on a green tea tour of Kyoto periodically think of me fondly the way I do her?  She told me about her family dysfunction and the struggles with her patriarchal father.  I did no “counselling” or psychotherapy and never even revealed my background or profession.  Yet, before we parted ways, she confessed to feeling heard and understood in a way she had never experienced before…

Can These Encounters Teach Us About Communicating with Our Family & Friends?

How this can happen with people we have literally just met is something I find both fascinating and beautiful.  Perhaps in communicating with strangers, we sometimes bypass the limitations imposed by expectations and assumptions.  We have no fixed agenda and do not fall prey to the patterned behaviours that can occur with people more familiar to us.  Maybe these encounters can teach us something valuable about communicating with our family and friends.

What I know for certain is that I am grateful.  These connections, these experiences, these memories are gifts to me.  Thank-you, Kio Stark, for reminding me of that.