In the course of my work I have met a lot of people through chance encounters at airports, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotel lobbies.
During random conversations with these individuals I have discovered something that I had never paid attention to while conducting hundreds of formal ethnographic interviews over the past two decades. I realized that I was subconsciously following a few rules of engaged conversations with strangers that lead to deep insights. I realize that:
To learn something meaningful from a conversation one must develop genuine curiosity for people’s life.
The first few questions i ask are very important from the perspective of gaining their trust. These questions are typically very simple and give them a glimpse into my observation power and gets them comfort to reveal a personal aspect of their own life. For example, last week in a restaurant in San Francisco I asked a man sitting next to me, “ are you in music industry?” He was surprised at the question and then we talked for the next half hour about his career in music and his upcoming audition. Yesterday at the hotel restaurant in Detroit I asked the waitress, “Do you have a lot of responsibilities?” That question opened her to tell me a long story of her move to Detroit from another small town at an early age, about her husband and the two kids she had at the age of 20 and 21.
Invariably they ask me what I do. My new narrative of what I do begins with, “ I study imagination.” That comment invariably makes the other person curious about what I do and gives me the opportunity to tell them that my clients hire us to study people’s life and their imagination, so that they can build the stuff people’s imagination is made of. Their curiosity grows and we begin to explore each other’s thoughts, feelings and stories within mutually acceptable boundaries of discretion.
Another important thing I have learned to be important in conversations with strangers is to make it clear early on in the conversation that I will be non-judgmental. That talking to a stranger is in fact a stress relieving experience. The fear of being judged, often forces people to hold back their emotions, curb their expression and continue to simmer inside. On the other hand, at the end of my work related interviews I have often received hugs from the participants for the relief they felt from saying and hearing things that remained trapped in their heads.
A meaningful conversation with a stranger is like peeling the layers of an onion- It requires gentle handling and maintaining respectable distance while reaching out. One has to peel one thin layer of memories at a time starting at surface level. The exercise can bring tears to the eyes but It’s an art to be learned through experience.
I often tell people stories from my life and of people close to me. That helps establish an atmosphere of mutual comfort in revealing deeply held thoughts and beliefs.
I also find it helps to admit and give examples of one’s fears and feeling of vulnerability during such conversations. Externalizing one’s fears and feelings of vulnerability actually makes the conversation honest and transparent. it also helps the other person feel that vulnerabilities and fears are a part of being human and that they are capable of dealing with weaker moments.
While conducting formal interviews I always find it immensely useful to carry gifts. gifts work even with random encounters. Chocolates as a gift have magical effect on people around the world. When I travel internationally, I always carry chocolates to sweeten conversations.
I often think about what I have learned and the changes that have happened in me through years of ethnographic research and through numerous conversations with people. I realize that deep inside everyone has a craving to tell their story, a desire for there being someone who will listen and not make judgments. People like to connect with strangers. People like to experience a shared moment of trust, transparency and affection that gets built through meaningful conversations.
Walking away from such conversations, one feels a sense of discovery and revival of the spirit for living life with curiosity.