The Compass Rose: Talking to Strangers
By WVFC on July 12, 2009
by Ainslie Uhl
I often have conversations with strangers, despite what I taught our children when they were young and much to their embarrassment now that they are grown. Why should I not? We are, above all, fellow human beings and naturally curious about one another. Every one of us has a story. And the generosity of simply listening is a gift whose value cannot be overestimated.
Years ago, during a period when France suddenly required visas for all travelers, I stood in line on Fifth Avenue for hours, with hundreds of other Francophiles, waiting to gain the blessings of the French Embassy. The woman behind me and I exchanged just enough information to realize that we had a mutual acquaintance living in Hilton Head and, after getting our visas, continued our lively conversation through lunch, dining outdoors at a delightful restaurant on Madison Avenue. It was a bon voyage celebration to compensate for the idiocy of overzealous bureaucracy – but, beyond that, she was a woman at one of life’s crossroads who needed to be heard. My afternoon was free. Her secrets were safe with me. I was the perfect stranger to lend her an ear.
I have had dozens of surprisingly personal verbal exchanges with all sorts of people since we moved to California. The protective posturing and social sizing-up that comes with life in certain strata of the South, driven by religion and righteous conservatism, has been largely absent from my encounters here. I attribute that to the constant influx of new residents, the diversity of the California citizenry and a noticeable lack of tradition, a predictable paucity of the puritan ethic.
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