What I learned from Humans of New York, or, three steps to having more authentic conversations
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to get the latest Humans of New York book signed by Brandon Stanton. The book is called Stories, and focuses as much on the stories people tell as on their photographs. I find Humans of New York meaningful because of how much empathy for others it inspires. No matter what the subject of the photo looks like — pink hair or elderly or in a tailored suit (or all of the above), we’re able to see ourselves in the subject’s shoes. It’s the one place on the internet where I’m not afraid to look at the comments section. Brandon Stanton has a way of bringing people together across pretty strongly drawn boundaries of race, class, gender, neighborhood…all the things that divide us.
So it was unsurprising to see that the crowd at this book signing was diverse, in the actual sense of the word. It was representative of what’s great about New York: old and young, different races and ethnicities, several different languages spoken, and, from what I was able to glean from the questions asked and the conversations overheard, a multitude of different backgrounds represented.
It was also a very large crowd, which meant that even with my priority seating and an incredibly efficient Barnes and Noble event staff, I waited for about three hours to get Brandon’s signature.
Luckily for me, I sat next to a man who would make the time pass quickly, and ultimately change the way I approach interactions with people. On the way home, I reflected that it was the single most authentic conversation I’ve ever had in New York. Here’s why:
We led with experiences, not markers.
I didn’t talk about being a new mom until after about an hour. He and I didn’t exchange names until we’d been talking for two hours. I don’t know where he works, where or whether he went to school…none of the usual information we exchange when we meet new people and try to put them into one of our boxes.
In the first hour, we talked about his experience serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I shared how my brother’s choice to enlist in the Marines had changed my family. We both lamented how few people who make decisions about when and where we engage our military actually served themselves, and wondered how things would be different if members of Congress, if the President, had someone they loved on active duty.
I’ve had that conversation before…but not with a stranger.
2. We kept it real.
There’s a rule that guides most polite conversations: don’t talk about politics or religion. I’ll add another taboo subject to that list: race. Talking about race is hard enough with people you know. With people you don’t, it’s a pretty easy way to shut down a conversation.
But the man sitting next to me and I ignored that. He said, “The only people who really understand what it’s like to have a family member serving overseas? Cops’ wives. Every day their husbands leave and they don’t know if they’ll make it home.”
I paused. Normally I would have murmured assent, but this night was different. So I said, “That might be true. But I’m sister to two black brothers, wife to a black husband, and now mother to a black son. Every day when I think of my husband or brothers going to work, or school, I fear for them. Police wives aren’t the only ones who know what it’s like.”
This sparked a deep conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement, about police officers, and about how the media dangerously simplifies the narrative.
3. We listened…truly.
There are a few ways to listen. Most of the time, we listen with a focus on self. Our internal dialogue sounds something like this:
“How does what this person is saying affect me?”
“Do I agree or disagree with this?”
“What am I going to say next?”
But this time felt different. I fully focused on my new friend and what he had to say, and he did the same for me. And he blossomed under the gift of that focus. I learned more about him and his story over the course of those hours than I usually learn about people in years…just by listening to him.
At the end of the night, we got our books signed, thanked each other, and went our separate ways. In a city the size of New York, I’ll probably never see him again. But every time I strike up a conversation with a stranger, I’ll remember him.