Terry Marotta: Hey — DO Talk to Strangers!

Columns / Aug. 17, 2000 12:00am EDT

Often, the advice people give you is good.

Sometimes, though, it just isn’t.

I think of the advice that led Ross Perot to take James Stockdale as his vice presidential running mate in the ‘92 election. (Remember the Gore-Quayle-Stockdale Debate that October? "Admiral Stockdale, your opening statement, please, sir," began the moderator. "Who am I? Why am I here?" the little man yelped, to the consternation of millions of viewers.) Or the advice the beauty shop owner took when she named her shop "Hair Today" ("And Gone Tomorrow"? is all you can think, driving past.) Or the advice the Traditional Medicinals® people took when they chose a name for their new herbal tea blend with supposedly laxative properties. ("Smooth Move," the stuff is called.)

But in my book, just about the worst advice on record is the advice your own mother gave you when she warned against talking to strangers.

I realize Don’t Talk to Strangers is a good rule for a child. But it seems to me if you’re all grown up and still keeping it like one of the Commandments, you’re missing out on a lot.

I know if I couldn’t talk to strangers, my life would be much the poorer.

It was a total stranger who taught me how to recognize beets in their natural state. (With their flouncy tails and delicate pointy noses, they look nothing like you see them on the plate.) It was a stranger who taught me how to tip a cabdriver. This stranger was not just my cabbie of the moment, but such a kind man that when out of genuine and longstanding puzzlement, I asked about tipping, he parked, turned around to face me and carefully ran through several scenarios by way of illustration.

Plus, once you start talking to strangers, you realize we’re in much more of a position to help each other than we might have guessed. I entered a convenience store and saw a young dad in the checkout line clumsily juggling a box of diapers while trying to cradle a newborn. How hard was it for me to hold the diapers while we waited his turn? Not hard at all; it was even fun.

My whole life’s path, I now see, has been gently nudged and corrected by the frank remarks and chance observations of strangers

A trivial illustration: I overheard a stranger saying that she’d bought a book about healthy living that recommends avoiding sugar and white flour and lost 30 pounds in six months. I broke in to ask the book’s name and we talked; and when, this past May, I began following its precepts, my weight went down to a place it hasn’t been since my ninth grade year.

A less-than-trivial one: Once I hitchhiked from Western Massachusetts to the ocean in search of a summer job in one of Boston’s banks. Besides advising me never, never to thumb a ride again, the stranger who picked me up advised me to go to a certain office in the Massachusetts State House. I did this, landed a three-year-position as a research assistant, met the love of my life and gave up hitching forever.

When we talk to strangers we don’t ask after each other’s families or "catch up" in the usual way. Our talk is immediate, spontaneous, "real"—perhaps because with strangers there is no reason to hide or dissemble.

So here’s to recalling, in these months preceding another election, that this wondrous nation was after all founded on the very belief that strangers can and will talk together to reach solutions and achieve consensus.

In the spirit of that belief, let’s put aside our cell-phones and headsets for a while. Let’s meet one another’s gaze a little more as we pass on our streets and sidewalks.

Terry’s e-mail: tmarotta@mediaone.net

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