Talking with a Stranger

Two Saturdays ago, my family and I painted our home office, its previous color a tired butterscotch. Before lunch, the four of us almost finished the first coat of a refreshing light blue, but we needed another gallon. I volunteered to pick up another can of paint at one of the local home-improvement stores.

Driving to the store, I assumed it would be chaotic, that I’d be waiting at the paint counter for as long as it takes paint to dry. It was, after all, almost 1 p.m. on a Saturday.

In keeping with my practice of trying to use my phone less, I brought along a book, Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in its Proper Place. I assumed I’d be able to finish the chapter I was on. I was learning a lot, and I wanted to press forward.

Walking to the paint section, I ran into a friend, and she asked what project I was busy with. After I told her, she said, “Good luck trying to find someone to help you.” I planted myself at the counter, no aproned workers in sight. The store wasn’t as busy as I’d expected. A husband and wife debated paint colors, scrutinizing tri-colored cards. I read a couple of pages in my book before a worker appeared.

I slid the paint-color card across the counter, told him I needed one gallon. Off he went, and I returned to the paragraph I had been reading. I heard the large paint-shaking machine commence, and the worker returned to the counter. Then the strangest thing happened.

My conscience told me, don’t read your book when there’s another human three feet away. I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t question. I just closed my book, looked up to where he stood, and asked, “Well, how’s your day been going?” His face looked as surprised as I felt by my action. Had I just done this? But my question felt as thought it were the right thing to do.

He smiled. “Good, but I just got here.” For a second there was a pause, and I added, “I would have thought it would be busier here on a Saturday.” He preceded to tell me about the times on Saturday that were busy: early in the morning, and in the evening before closing.

During my 30-day detox from my phone, on the day of my technology fast, the plan encouraged you to have a conversation with a complete stranger. I didn’t do that. But a month later I did so without planning to, and when I left the store, an added bounce in my step I couldn’t quite explain was a result of my heart full.

I’m not an “outgoing” social person. I prefer small crowds. I’m an introvert. Only about 20-25% of my work week is spent interacting with my students and colleagues; the rest of the time, I’m reading, preparing, grading. So for the more sociable and outgoing people (some of my good friends are this way), my brief interaction is typical for them. They do it without thinking.

But on a Saturday afternoon in September, two strangers had a brief conversation, and although no problems of global significance were solved, there was genuine human interaction.


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