When my two siblings and I were young’uns, my parents would take us places where we occasionally had to wait a little while: in a doctor’s office, in a movie queue, in a checkout line, or at a restaurant table for our meal to arrive. And let’s be honest, little kids are going to grow restless with all that waiting. If we complained too much, Mom always told us, “Just watch the people go by!” I probably don’t need to tell you that our response was inevitably, “That’s booorrring!” And it was!

Besides being restless, I was a shy kid. Talking to strangers was the last thing I ever wanted to do. Strangely enough, growing older has spurred me to seek out conversations with people I don’t even know. Now I find most people fascinating, not boring. The patrons who come into the library offer an interesting cross-section of Salinans: wide-eyed toddlers holding their parents’ hands, library newcomers looking around to get their bearings, those who invariably head directly to the books, DVDs or games, and the regulars who like to stop and chat for a moment or two. All of them help my shifts at the circulation desk pass quickly and pleasantly. 

Encouraged by a coworker, I recently experimented with talking to at least one stranger every day for a week. Since I talk to strangers all the time, I’ve decided to write about a few of my favorite encounters over the past several months, not limiting myself to a week. 

Most people like to be asked about themselves. That’s an easy conversation starter at the library. I simply ask about a book or movie someone is checking out and the conversation carries itself along. One gentleman brought to the desk several automotive maintenance manuals for older cars. I mentioned my interest in classic autos, and his eyes lit up. He told me all about a 1960s model Chevrolet Chevelle he is restoring as a retirement hobby. He clearly loved the project and knew what he was talking about. This 76-year-old man’s energy was contagious, and I could have listened even longer than the five minutes we had before another patron needed my attention.

Little kids are always unpredictable and fun. They love to slide books through the library’s book drop slot, and if I’m in the back I get a kick out of peeking through the slot at them and asking, “Who’s that giving me more work to do back here??” My disembodied voice always brings giggles! Then I’ll inquire, “Did you read all these books? Which one did you like most?” These short through-the-slot chats will bring responses ranging from “No!! I’m too old for that book!” to “Mommy read them all to me” and “I loved all the books about dinosaurs!” Helping kids see that the library–and librarians–can be fun is the highlight of my job here. 

In addition to working at the library I have a job at the Salina Emergency Aid Food Bank. One day I was waiting with our donations truck outside Aldi. An older gentleman wearing a cap reading Vietnam Veteran walked by and did not seem to be in a hurry to do his shopping. Somehow sensing that he was proud of his service, I struck up a conversation. “I served two years in Vietnam,” he told me. Then he surprised me: “They were two of the best years of my life!” He was in the Navy and his job was transporting materials along the South Vietnamese coast. I could not catch all the details, as his voice was raspy and traffic was noisy. He talked about visiting places he never dreamed of seeing. He also said that he knew many veterans did not have the positive experiences he did, but he was very happy to talk to me about his time overseas. His story revealed a side of the Vietnam veteran experience that is unfamiliar to most of us who have only heard one version. 

A recent nice day saw me on my bicycle. Riding past a house on Quincy Street, I spied a beautiful gray cat relaxing in the sun. Of course I pulled out my phone to snap a photo or two. The cat’s owner came out to chat and told me all about Mr. Grey. Mr. Grey was one of four feral kittens born underneath an empty house next door. Over the past two years, this man and his wife slowly earned the trust of Mama Cat. Now all five cats have been fixed, given their shots, and roam freely indoors and out. What a wonderful story from a fellow cat lover!

Another time I ate at a restaurant in Illinois with a friend. The young cashier complimented Stephanie’s curly hair, which led to a conversation. The girl asked where we are from. “I live here in town,” Stephanie answered. “I’m visiting her from Kansas,” I said. “Kansas?!” The cashier nearly exploded. “Kansas! I was born in Kansas! Garden City!” We talked a little longer about how she ended up in small town Illinois. All three of us had smiles on our faces by the time we left the restaurant. 

Finally, there are people I come to know well enough that I no longer consider them strangers. At the food bank, I work alongside people who come and go for a multitude of reasons. Some are only there for one or two days, while others show up regularly. I make an effort to help them all feel welcome, knowing how overwhelming our food distribution and restocking can seem at first glance. 

Lately I have gotten to know a young mother of two boys whom she clearly adores. She’s told me how one son accidentally glued his eyes shut trying to look like Spiderman by attaching cut-out Spidey eyes to his own. Her older son is artistic and loves to read; his brother is into sports of all kinds. I’ve asked about her interesting tattoos, particularly the impressive pair of eyes on her left forearm; they are her older boy’s. Talking with her has made the hours much more fun and helped them pass quickly. I hope she’s enjoyed the conversations as much as I have, and though I’ve never met her boys, I already feel like I know them! 

Talking to people helps create empathy and deepen understanding as we learn about the stories that are part of everyone’s lives. Through these conversations and many like them, I feel a stronger sense of community whether I’m at the food bank, the library, or simply cycling around town. 

Starting a conversation with a stranger can be scary. But the rewards I’ve enjoyed over the years have made overcoming my initial hesitancy worth the effort a thousand times over. 

Are you interested in reading more about talking to people? Here are a couple of books the library owns related to the topic. 

The Best Strangers in the World, by Ari Shapiro

Conversation Skills, by Helen Stone