As somebody who is both introverted and shy, I'm not the best at initiating conversation with strangers. But that's not because I don't want to.
Shortly before Christmas, I was standing in line at Walmart with my Christmas gifts when I noticed an elderly man place maybe three dozen individual cans of Fancy Feast cat food on the conveyor belt behind me, followed by a box of 30 more cans of the same food, different flavor. He had a couple of other items, but I was drawn to the cat food, especially since my cat loves the same brand.
"Whoa, that's a lot of cat food. How many cats do you have?" I asked.
The problem I have when initiating conversation with strangers is, many people don't actually want to have a conversation with strangers, especially in Walmart. They just want to get in and get out as quickly as possible. As an introvert, I can totally relate.
"We have two. My wife and I rescued one about a month ago. About a week after we got him, he got sick. We took him in and the veterinarian said he had digestive issues and needed surgery. We spent $1,000 to get him taken care of. He can really only digest this." He pointed at the Fancy Feast.
"Bless you for taking such good care of him."
I wish I would've asked the man the name of his cats. Hearing a name is so much more personal.
"The place where we got him said he was abused as a kitten - locked in a basement without food for long periods of time."
No wonder the poor thing has digestive issues. "I hope the person who did it has to face the music."
It was my turn to check out. I did so and then turned back toward the elderly man with a giant heart. "I hope your kitty's health keeps improving."
He smiled and thanked me.
In times like this, I'm reminded that it's not all that difficult to make a connection with a stranger. All you have to do is pay attention and look for a connecting point - something you can latch onto. It can be cat food, diapers, a necklace, a team jersey, a certain make or model of car or anything else you can bond over.
If you're shy and/or introverted, you might wonder why you should make such an effort. I would say that if you don't, you are missing the dual blessing of human connection.
The elderly man smiled about our connection. Maybe it even made him feel noticed. I don't know. But I do know that it made me appreciative of the fact that a man like him exists to care for animals. And that animals exist to bring joy to a man like this. That was nearly two weeks ago, and I'm still thinking about that encounter. It was simple and lacked depth but that doesn't mean it wasn't real.
We live in a world in which avoiding eye contact feels like the norm.
In the gym where I walk on the treadmill most days, the only people I have a conversation with is a guy named Joshua who works there. He tore his MCL and has been on crutches since he started working at the gym. He's a giant of a man but as gentle as they come. We've shared injury stories (I ruptured my Achilles tendon years ago) and recovery stories. But nobody else at the gym seems to want to engage on any level. I understand that to a degree.
The gym isn't the only place where people avoid eye contact. Doctor's offices, restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops - you name it. People seem skittish. Maybe it's because we've grown suspicious. Everybody seems to want to sell something. Or maybe it's because we're not trusting of people we don't know. A healthy fear is probably a good thing. But part of me wonders if we haven't moved beyond a healthy fear of one another into paranoia.
This time of year, many of us are drawn to Christmas movies and novels that depict small town settings where strangers help one another. If we really want to live in that type of environment, we have to be willing to talk to one another. I say this to myself more than anybody. Talking to one another comes with the risk of rejection, no doubt. But not talking to one another comes with the risk of feeling isolated.