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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Talk to your neighbor

Reflections on meaningful interactions with strangers


By YASMEEN O’BRIEN — yjobrien@ucdavis.edu


I am often the person who will spark up a conversation with the person next to me, whether I’m waiting in line, sitting at a crowded café, at a music festival or even just walking down the street. For the most part, I enjoy talking to strangers. Sometimes it’s not even about starting the conversation but about being open to it. People can be quite talkative if you let them be. 

You may hear stories about interesting experiences that broaden your perspective. Or learn things about the world and other points of view. It can also create a feeling of closeness and camaraderie among your community. 

Maybe you make a friend, maybe you learn something, maybe you get told to “mind your own business” (which can be valuable in its own right) or maybe you are simply entertained for a moment. You never know what could happen. And I think it’s worth it to find out. 

A few weeks ago, I was in San Francisco visiting my boyfriend, and I stepped out one morning to get us some breakfast. While I was waiting for bagels, I sat down at a table next to an older man who introduced himself as Big Johnny. I complimented his black leather jacket and before I knew it we were enthralled in conversation. When I told him I was from Berkeley, he smiled and told me he had just been in Berkeley the day before. 

He had been showing his friend’s son, a 14-year-old Ukrainian refugee, around the UC Berkeley campus “to plant the seed” and “show him what his life could be,” since the young boy wanted to go back to Ukraine to fight for his country as soon as he graduated high school. 

I listened to him as he told me more about the Ukraine crisis and began to think about how this young boy must believe it is a valiant choice to fight, that it could make him a hero. But when you’re young, you don’t really understand the complexities or the tragedy of war. 

As I walked away, a large pit formed in my stomach. I was looking at this all wrong. Who was I to say this young boy doesn’t understand the tragedy of war? He had experienced it in a way that I had never. He had been closer to it than I ever was. I didn’t have any right to say he was wrong in what he felt, I had no idea what he felt. Both my perspective and the young boy’s could be valid. Maybe if we had talked we would come to an entirely different conclusion altogether. 

I was thankful for my conversation with Big Johnny. It challenged and broadened my way of thinking and expanded my knowledge of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I practiced my listening skills, and I learned so much. A big part of getting something out of these experiences is to spend a bit of time reflecting on them. It’s an important step toward understanding how valuable it can be to get to know a stranger. 

Similarly, one afternoon a few months ago on the corner of 3rd and C Streets in Davis, I met a very cute old woman who had some wisdom to share. After I picked up something she had dropped, she asked me how old I was. When I said 21, she smiled, reminiscing about her youth. She paused for a second, then asked if she could give me some advice, to which I said yes (I am in no position to turn down free advice).

The first thing she told me was, “Take many lovers.” In quite a commanding tone, might I add. I laughed, but she only raised her eyebrows sternly, peering into my soul with her blue-gray eyes. I nodded. 

She told stories about her life as a young woman (she had taken many lovers), and a little further into our conversation, she asked me if I had good friends in my life. I said yes and she smiled, “In 20 years, if your friend crosses your mind, give them a call. Even if you haven’t talked to them in God knows how long. Pick up the phone and call them.”

For reasons I won’t get into, her timing in my life was almost mystical. It was good advice. And when I turned around after crossing the street, she was gone, as if she had vanished into thin air. 

I hadn’t been having a great day, and she turned it around just by having a simple conversation with me. I thought about our chat for a long time. You just never know what wisdom or stories or perspectives people hold, or how they will impact you. I think that connecting with others and learning about our differences as well as similarities can enrich our lives

I’ve never seen or talked to either of these people again, but I still learned something from each of them. Both of them made my day in one way or another. These experiences became stories to tell my friends and family. I felt closer to my community and my perspective was broadened. It was worth it, and I think it will be worth it for you, too.


Written by: Yasmeen O’Brien — yjobrien@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.