Why talk to strangers

Alli in times squ

Younger me says goodbye to Times Square

When I was younger, I was awestruck a lot of the time. I still am – which is, if I’m being honest, probably both refreshing and irritating to those around me. Someday I will be that person gawking at the quantity of paper towels available at Costco. But it used to be so intense that I would marvel at every single thing about airplane travel. 

I know. On the one hand, it’s understandable. I’m getting on a metal tube that will hurdle through the sky and then deposit me, within a matter of hours, to a destination that’s likely in a different climate and time zone. On the other hand, commercial flight is one of the last remaining forms of widely used public transportation, and no one likes being crammed into small spaces for long periods of time with all of farting, sneezing, and snoring humanity. It’s just something you’ve got to get through to get to where you’re going.

Yet wide-eyed younger me didn’t understand, or was unwilling to accept this. I was enchanted.

Back then, I would talk to people on airplanes. I would talk to people on the plane.

One flight in particular stands out. It was Christmas Day. I’d bought the cheap, one way ticket to move myself and all of my earthly belongings from frigid, windy New York City to frigid, snowy Anchorage, AK. 

On the final Anchorage-bound, nearly empty flight, I found myself talking with two strangers. Across the aisle, we turned toward each other and started buying rounds of drinks, sharing what brought us to the airplane and what we were hoping to do in Alaska. I know why I was part of the conversation – my giddy excitedness and desire to tell anybody that would listen that my day to finally move to Alaska had come. What moved the other two to talk must have been Christmas spirit, or something. Time felt suspended.

Over the course of three hours, we had an honest, intergenerational conversation about life, our aspirations, and our challenges. We listened to one another and encouraged each other. At the end of the flight, we exchanged contact information and heartfelt well wishes. 

I still think about that. One of the two found me on Facebook, and it makes me happy to see that he has achieved key parts of his plan. Having even this small, but bright connection is a reminder of what openness and awe can bring – a connection to others, and a deep sense of empathy for the bigger underlying struggles and dreams we each carry.

I don’t often talk to people on airplanes anymore. I’m not as entranced by flight. But I do try to remember that it’s a balance between getting to where I’m going, and being right here even when I’m still on the way. I love the connections with people, big and small, that expand my experience of the world. It’s a good reason to talk to strangers.

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