Why talking to people you don’t know will make you a better person

How often do you talk to someone you don’t know? I mean really talk. How often do you sit down and find out what makes them tick; their heartbreaks, habits, humanity? How often in the daily routine of waking up, consuming breakfast, going to work, coming home, decompressing and sleeping do you talk to someone you’ve never met before?

This, dear reader, is one of my favourite things. Please don’t be mistaken. I’m not saying that I patiently listen to every odd ball for hours on end in a confessionary type vestibule nodding in sage, referential priestliness. God no. I’m a talker myself. I’m the first one to bend another’s ear, to introduce myself, to fill an awkward silence, to chew the fat. Social butterfly is the fitting term, dear reader. But I also like to listen. I’ve got a secret. Lean in. It’s when listening that you become a better person.

That sounds like a pretty big call doesn’t it? Listening to others makes you a better person? BIG. CALL. But I think, and brace yourself for the rather grandiose statement that is to come, listening is THE contribution. It is the contribution to the swirling ball of humanity that we all belong to. The heart of us. The spiritual. The ‘being’ in human being.

The other day, I was about a third of the way through my every day routine. I had lived the routine fairly religiously that day; spoken to my neighbours, colleagues, students. No one new. I was swinging my cute wedges out of the car door and an overwhelming feeling overcame me. I want to talk to someone new. I want to sit down in a place that I wouldn’t normally at that time of day, introduce myself and talk.

The best place to do this in close proximity to my parked car that day, with my little wedges in tow and my toes in wedge, was a local wine bar. Wine bars have bartenders. Bartenders like to talk. I wanted to talk. You can see the genius of my conclusions here.

I tottered down to the cute little bar stocked with a vertical wall of wine and grabbed a stool. I introduced myself to the cloth-draped bar-tender and then looked at the time. It was 4 p.m. Gosh, is wine even served at 4 p.m.? Turns out it is.

At this point, however, I still wanted to TALK. But it wasn’t very long until my friendly bartender, let’s call him Greg, because his name was Greg, started talking to me, in the desire for me to listen to him. He began anxiously talking about his work, his baby, his accidental night conceiving said baby. You can see that it didn’t take long for Greg to open up. Actually I think he opened up at the exact moment that I decided to listen. It works that way. This listening thing.

The writer in me started observing detail. I noticed the way he jittered and tapped on the counter with what I assumed were caffeine-fuelled fingertips. I saw the darkness under his eyes and the way they lit like river lanterns over those deep-ocean-dark bags when he spoke of his young son. He talked of things that I knew nothing of; the after-work life of a bartender, the politics of hospitality, the difficulty of shift work with an infant who he craved time with. I started to understand him in some small way. To feel connected to him. Do you see what was happening? Pretty clever, this listening stuff.

Listening has such a powerful, yes I’ll say it, spiritual way of connecting us. And yet it’s so simple its genius. If I sit back and try to trigger the pockets of memories that release times when I have sat down with someone I didn’t know and truly listened, it’s when I felt this ‘spirituality’ the most.

Let me tell you some of the most powerful.

I remember listening to an elderly woman in a Vietnamese field tell me about the day her husband was shot down in front of her. I remember a stripper in the dressing room of a Las Vegas Club (another story needed for how I got there!) tell me why she took off her clothes for money. I remember sitting on a decadent carpet talking to a Turkish man about how his first love died at fifteen and he felt that he had never been able to love again. And closest to home, I remember listening to a workmate whom I had NEVER had a conversation with before in a compulsory ‘get to know you session’ tell me that her greatest regret in life was having children.

In every single one of these conversations I became a better person. I contributed by listening. They were heard and we were connected in that moment. The swirling, heaving, bubbling cauldron of humanity synergised in those moments.

I’m not saying that every conversation has to be you sitting there just listening. That’s not conversation. And without your side, the chat doesn’t snake and flow, trust isn’t built and the bridge isn’t crossed. It’s important for you to be listened to too.

As a writer though, listening is the greatest gift. A writer needs plot, a writer needs character, and a writer needs description. This holy trinity are all found in the divinity of listening. So find yourself a bar, a stool and a bartender and swap places. Not literally, of course, that would involve you not enjoying wine, but spiritually swap places. Become the listener and hold back on the need to respond. Just. Listen. Then add this to the beautifully unique tapestry of humanity as you know it. Recall it when you need to add colour and depth to a character, or when you need to detail conflict and obstacle in plot.

Use it as a writer and use it as a human. Deepen your understanding of what others feel, think and believe. Find someone you don’t know and listen. You might just find that the person unloading to you is not the only one better for it.

A wonderful Italian waiter whom I met in Rome. I waited out a fierce afternoon storm getting to know him and his country's delicious food.

A wonderful Italian waiter whom I met in Rome. I waited out a fierce afternoon storm getting to know him and his country’s delicious food.

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