Try something new, like talking to a total stranger
There is nothing quite like the spark of making a great connection with a perfect stranger. Years ago, on a flight from Lima to Mexico City, I made a connection with the lovely young woman sitting next to me on the plane. I was living in Puerto Vallarta at the time and was flying back to Mexico from a vacation at Machu Picchu. Claudia was from Mexico, but traveling for business, back and forth, to Lima. Somehow, we started chatting.
It is hard to define the mystical blend of circumstance/pheromones/things-in-common, etc. that allow two people to quickly and deeply connect with one another, but somehow, Claudia and I had it. What could have been a long, tedious flight, suddenly became a delightful conversation. We spent the flight reading and discussing a book of Frida Kahlo paintings that Claudia pulled out of her bag, and sharing one set of iPod earphones so we could listen to music together. The six-hour journey flew by, and by the time we landed in Mexico City, we had become good friends.
The friendship immediately proved fortuitous because when we arrived in Mexico City, I learned that I had missed my connection to Puerto Vallarta and would be stranded for a day. I called Claudia, who volunteered to pick me up the next morning and take me around the village of Coyoacan, where Frida Kahlo comes from. In the middle of the polluted sprawl of Mexico City, Coyoacan is an unexpected oasis of art, culture and history. On weekends, the “zocalo” or town square is filled with artists and street performers. We visited the wonderful houses of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (now museums). The day stands out as a highlight of my years in Mexico and as one I will never forget, both for the charming village atmosphere of Coyoacan, and for the delightful company of my new friend Claudia.
I was thinking about this friendship the other day and wondering if these kinds of serendipitous connections still happen in the modern age. I always used to start every flight with small talk with the person sitting next to me. Sometimes we hit it off, sometimes we didn’t. But I would at least say hello, ask where they were headed and maybe cordially offer a stick of gum. Nowadays, I rarely even make eye contact. I’m too engrossed in whatever I’m watching on Netflix at the moment. And my seatmate is equally engrossed in his or her Candy Crush, latest Kindle book, or <insert your favorite app here>. In the age of mobile technology, we are never so bored on a flight that chatting to the person next to us seems like the best option.
And flights are not the only domain where serendipitous connections seem to be waning. When was the last time you stopped someone on the street to ask directions? To ask the time? To have someone take a photo for you? These micro-connections with strangers are a casualty of the digital age—a cultural relic from a time when answers to every question were not easily found in our pockets.
However, there is an opportunity here. The fact that connections with strangers are increasingly rare makes them even more precious. If you are brave enough to interrupt the digital stream of content consumption, it is relatively easy to surprise and delight people in an elevator, in line at the bank or on an airplane with even the most minor attempt to engage. Here is a simple experiment: Ask someone in the supermarket where they found the corn or salted peanuts. It is a simple, minor request that gives someone the chance to aid another human being and, assuming they point you in the right direction, gives you the chance to bask in this tiny gesture of altruism. I’m willing to bet both of you will come away with your well-being elevated. Maybe, just maybe, you will open the door to an unexpected friendship.
As for Claudia and I, our paths never crossed again since that wonderful day in Coyoacan. But we remain friends, thanks, in large part, to Facebook. So there is that.