Talk to strangers

Fast Freddie in Woldenburg Park

This week, I attended the AcademyHealth meetings in New Orleans. Spent a surprising amount of time doing Twitter selfies with long-distance friends I see a few times a year.

I met some interesting strangers, too. Fast Freddie (shown above) charged me $10 for a shoe shine. That was kindof ridiculous, but he let me take his picture. I got the better end of that deal.

On the way home, I grabbed dinner with some time to kill at the New Orleans airport. Of course I avoided the authentic local cuisine-because who wants that. I headed straight to Subway.*

One table was located near the precious electronic outlet. One problem: A man was already sitting there. I asked if I could join him. He said sure. Chris Finch is a member of the coaching staff of the New Orleans Pelicans. We had a fascinating conversation about the NBA life: a few players he admires across the league, what makes for selfish play at both ends of the floor, how the NBA game differs from college. He’s just a really smart and engaging person.

The world is filled with wonderful strangers who cross our paths without without engagement in our lonely crowd. Research by my University of Chicago colleague Nick Epley suggests that we should talk more with interesting strangers who come our way in life. He’s right. We’d be happier if we could fix that.

*Since you are wondering: toasted 6-inch roast beef with provolone, spinach, and pickles.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

4 thoughts on “Talk to strangers”

  1. One table was located near the precious electronic outlet.

    Airports have gotten better about this, because of popular pressure, but this is why when I travel I carry a small outlet splitter, so I can use an outlet without diminishing others' access (or, conversely, I can ask for access to an outlet that's seemingly full).

  2. Oh man, nothing better than chatting up strangers when you're on the road! Some of the most wonderful places I've ever visited were suggested by random people sitting at the bar, not guidebooks or TripAdvisor.

    I just commented on boxing above, but two weeks ago I was walking down from the funicular pinnacle of Bergen Harbor, and saw a very fit young man shadow boxing beside a lake. He had terrific form and footwork, and I walked over to him and told him so. One of my two middle-aged companions was a childhood friend from my hometown, the boxing Mecca of Brockton, MA, and we then spoke with this 19-year-old Russian, atop a Norwegian fjord, for the next 15 minutes, about Rocky Marciano and Marvelous Marvin Hagler and the Petronelli brothers, after he had made us clarify, "you are saying Brockton, yes, not Boston?"

    "Yes Brockton, we both grew up there."

    "Oh man, that's soooo cooool! I have never met anyone from Brockton!" (Brockton is a shithole, not cool at all, but how funny, to be chatting about it with a Russian teen in Norway!)

    "Did you box?"

    "No", my friend said, "that shit was scary!"

    "Yes", I replied, "a little, until about 6th grade, when the black kids hit puberty- before that you could outpoint a bigger kid, because they were slower, but all of a sudden the black kids got bigger, stronger, AND faster… I gave it up."

    "Ha, we have no blacks in Russia or Norway, so I have never had that problem."

    "Are you pro, or semi-pro?"

    "No, but the other men groan when they draw me as their opponent at the local boxing club."

    "I bet they do, son, I bet they do."

    "Did you know Rocky?"

    "Oh brother, do I look THAT old? No, but he dated my Aunt Marj, and she says he was the consummate gentleman and a really amazing cook."

    "Wow, your aunt was Rocky's girlfriend?"


    "That is soooooo coooool." Seriously, there was only one cool person in this quartet, and it wasn't any of us gringos.

    And so it went. I grew concerned that the third man with us, from rural Wisconsin, would be bored by our lengthening conversation, but he smiled and waved my concern away, "no, this is great, these are the little epiphanies you remember from a trip, long after you've forgotten just where any given photo was taken."


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