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Forget what your parents told you: Talk to strangers

“Are you talking to me?”

No, this wasn’t the scene with Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” but a recent conversation at an airport lounge. I was delayed for a flight back to Springfield, so I plopped down for a long wait. I love airport and airplane conversations. They are with people you are certain you’ll never see again, so I have found people may really open up.

I remember vividly a conversation I had with a nice lady on a plane years ago. I started visiting and asking about her. She told me she had been married nearly 50 years. The more we talked, though, she confided in me, “I dated Warren in High School, and to this day, I always wondered what happened to him. But I do love my husband — he’s a good man!”

On another flight, I sat next to a man in a suit, who, as guys often do, led with, “What is it you do?” Seeing if he’d play along, I responded, “Well, I’m a jockey on race horses” and smiled. He got it, and said, “Nice to meet you, I’m a traveling tap dancer.” We spent the rest of the trip making things up, while trying not to bust out laughing. There were several gawks from fellow passengers as we fibbed across several states.

But during this more recent delay at an airport, a younger woman sat down next to me. I welcomed her and said, “Good afternoon, where you off to?” She had to make sure I was talking to her. “Most people just bury themselves in their phones or laptops, so I wasn’t use to someone actually wanting to talk,” she said. And talk we did.

I learned about how she worked her way up from a warehouse floor position to technical assistance, how this was her first business trip and first trip ever to Chicago, and how the supervisor at the facility in Chicago literally cried in her arms when she heard her story of hard work paying off. She told her, “Maybe I have a chance, too.”

Her flight departed before mine … turned out to be a long time before mine, and soon a gentleman sat next to me, and of course, we started chatting. He owned a company in Illinois that made rustic furniture, had been to Springfield many times, and was a HUGE fan of Bass Pro. He drifted into politics, and I could tell we were going to a place I didn’t want to go, so I gently guided the chatter back to his business.

I thought after he left, because his plane departed before mine, too (see a pattern here?), that had we met on the internet or social media, that conversation would have gone a totally different way. One can’t see smiles, sighs or visible human emotion on the product of a keyboard. My many hours of delay turned out to be enjoyable, actually. Much more so that just staring at a phone or an iPad.

Canadian author David Sax recently wrote a column titled “Why Strangers Are Good For Us.” He lamented about a robo-barista vending machine that opened near him, with no human workers in sight.

“But a future where coffee is served by robots is not an improvement on the coffee shop,” he writes. “It ignores a central purpose of the neighborhood café, a place for hot drinks and human interaction.”

He continued: “At the playground, I glanced up from my phone and saw my son and another boy yammering away as if they’d known each other for years. The other father looked up too and seemed genuinely surprised at this instant relationship. He walked over, knelt and asked his son who he was playing with. ‘I don’t know his name,’ the boy said, as his tiny fingers clutched one of my son’s Lego figures, ‘but he’s my friend.’”

You can’t get that spontaneity and warmth from a screen, and look at the traveling tap-dancers you may have missed if you had earbuds in. Given my nearly 8-hour stint at the airport, though, I would not be opposed to robotic pilots.

Brian Fogle is the President and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.

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