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Matthew Ross Smith

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Is Talking to Strangers Good for the Soul (and for America)?

Posted: 08/13/2012 4:13 pm

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About a decade ago, not long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there was a book published called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by a Harvard scholar named Robert Putnam. It had a neatly illustrated cover of a glum-looking man standing alone at a bowling alley. I remember picking up the hardcover as a college sophomore and weighing it in my right hand.

Back in those days I had a very scientific approach to choosing the texts I would or would not read. Simply: If a book exerted too much resistance when I lifted it from the shelf, if it was pulling itself away from me, then clearly that was the universe's way of telling me that I wasn't meant to be reading that particular book at that particular time.

But actually, for some reason, I read this book. The whole thing. I don't even think it was for a class; I just found it fascinating. Putnam had analyzed decades' worth of polls and statistics and argued, at length, that successive generations of Americans were becoming more passive, isolated, and disconnected. The one statistic that really hit a nerve was that we had become more suspicious of one another. Americans born before 1930 -- those of my grandfather's post-WWII generation -- were twice as likely to think "most people can be trusted" as their grandchildren.

I'd always dismissed this sort of talk as simple nostalgia. "Things used to be different," my grandmother used to say, sometimes just at random, to anyone who happened to be within earshot. "People used to be different." On our walks, even my generally-optimistic grandfather used to go on and on about those golden years when all Americans not only looked out for one another, but reached out to one another, too. "You don't understand," he'd say, "I tried to strike up a conversation with the guy sitting beside me at the ball game the other day, and he looked at me like I had four heads!"

Were Americans ever really more connected and trusting? Or is that just nostalgia?

This summer and fall I'm trying my best to find out. For the past two weeks I've been slowly driving across America, town by town, state by state, trying to meet 100 strangers per day, every day. I'm handing every stranger who'll talk to me a giant, pre-stamped postcard with instructions to "tell a story you don't want to be forgotten." This is my icebreaker. I'm going to do this for 100 straight days, until I've passed out every one of the 10,000 postcards I had printed. I'm blogging about the experience as I go.

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The end result, I hope, will be the creation of a unique archive of American history: hand-written memories and photographs contributed by strangers. I've selected the theme of memory in honor of my grandfather, who had Alzheimer's disease. It's a way of connecting people of different backgrounds and generations through our stories.

But in the short term, it's made for an epic-if-anecdotal sociological experiment: approaching a huge volume of strangers in public space and seeing how they react.

I set out with a lot of questions. Do strangers interact in public space anymore? Did they ever? Have our cell phones and iPods become like Frodo's ring: allowing us to become selectively invisible when desired? What is the cost of this invisibility?

In the past 11 days I've met 1,150 strangers... I can track it by the number of stamps I've used. Thus far there has been a predicable three-step process to the interactions. (1) suspicion, (2) curiosity, and (3) connection.

The first thing I've learned is to say "I'm doing an art project" right away. This first five seconds are crucial, since people are conditioned (rightly) to believe that strangers want something from them (money or attention being the primary commodities). The "art project" line opens a secondary 30-second window, during which I -- this person they have never seen before, who's just thrown himself in front of their path through the world -- must find a way to "connect."

I've found the best way to do this is to "flip" the conversation; that is, to begin asking them about their own lives. "Are you from here?" "What do you do for a living?" People are dying to tell you about their stories... if you can manage to create a connection -- which is another way of saying of creating trust -- in 30 seconds.

Surprisingly, this is possible. So far, my overall experience has been positive; I've gotten to step three more than I thought I would. So long as the weather is nice, and it's not too early, people have been receptive. Whether they will mail the postcards is another question, in large part dependent on the tenuous bond formed during our brief (and likely only-ever) encounter in the world. I'm curious to see how many will come back.

In the meantime, here's an idea I've been turning over in my head as I drive from town to town: Is there a correlation between the overall "divided" state of America and the way we interact with one another on an everyday basis? It seems to me that our communication -- though faster, more open, and further-reaching than ever -- is also more mediated than ever. Modern technology allows us to get the information we need without the hassle and pressure of being face-to-face with another human being. Thus we send emails to co-workers sitting 20 feet away in the next cube.

But maybe the subtle psychological demands of interacting with our fellow human beings ("What will they say next?" "What will I say back?" "Do I sound smart?") are good for us. Maybe being "exposed" isn't so bad. Further, maybe process of expressing our beliefs and personalities to an unknown party keeps us from always being the same version of ourselves all the time. Maybe that's how we grow. Every time we talk to a stranger, we are presenting the story of ourselves anew. And maybe that's a way to keep from seeing others as two-dimensional, too.

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So maybe you'll see me out there. I'm driving a 1998 Volvo "Memory Mobile" -- a sedan plastered with photographs -- and if you do, please say hello. As the country tears itself apart in the upcoming election season, we might take solace in these small moments of connection.

For more by Matthew Ross Smith, click here.

For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.

 

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