“People are strange when you’re a stranger.”
— Jim Morrison
I doubt my son was thinking of what I do for a living when he sent me the latest Malcolm Gladwell book “Talking to Strangers” for Christmas. Michael and I are members of a mini book club of two. We’re always sharing books.
But “Talking to Strangers” had special meaning for this college professor as he prepared for the beginning of another new semester. I had never before quite thought about the number of strangers I meet on the first days of class. They’re my students. Over two days last week, I met no less than 89 of them. Most are spread over four sections of public speaking, which makes them not just strangers but scared to death strangers.
And I, too, am a stranger to them, a stranger in which they are asked to place their trust. I’m their teacher, of course, but in a speech class I am also their caretaker. Allaying their fears is a big part of my job. Perhaps the most important part.
The timing of the Gladwell book couldn’t have been better.
Through a series of fascinating true stories, as is Gladwell’s style, he drives home this single point: making assumptions about strangers is troublesome. “The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile,” he writes. “If we tread carelessly it will crumple under our feet. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”
I want to say that as I’ve met thousands of strangers on the first day of class over the last 30 years I’ve always proceeded with caution and humility. But the truth is, I am just praying I always have.
Many students who have taken more than one class with me, often going from strangers to friends, have told me they remember the very first words I ever said to them. Hearing that gives me pause. Who knew the first thing out of my mouth could carry such import? For one student, it was just two words: “cool shoes.” She was an older student and a nervous wreck going back to school, but those two words, she said, seemed to make everything right.
I realize such things aren’t going to happen with every student. How could they? But there is something I know will happen. Salvador Dali said, “Life is too short to remain unnoticed.” I take that as a challenge to notice. My students may not say I was the best teacher they ever had, or that two words from me put them at ease, but they’ll all say I knew they were there. That I noticed them.
Since we are going to spend the next 15 weeks with one another, my students and I won’t remain strangers. If we do, I’ve done something wrong. But with “Talking to Strangers” fresh in mind, I made sure we got off to a good start. I spent extra time on day one trying to get to know them and allowing them to know me. We’ll build on that.
This is not the first time Malcolm Gladwell has influenced me, by the way. It’s just the latest. I have not read, but certainly should, his first two books, “The Tipping Point” (2000) and “Blink” (2005). My first experience with him came via his third book, “Outliers,” published in 2008. My wife, a retired operating room nurse, was still working then. At a wedding reception we sat with a few doctors and fellow nurses and all they were talking about was “Outliers.” On the way home, Mary Kay told me I had to read that book and then tell her about it so she could join in future conversations. See, Mary Kay reads at least five magazines a week and the entire New York Times every Sunday. But you couldn’t pay her to read a book.
So I picked up “Outliers” and right in the beginning got to read about a little town where no one under the age of 55 has ever been diagnosed with coronary artery disease. The town is Roseto, Pennsylvania, a little more than 60 miles from here. The reason had nothing to do with a heart healthy diet or heart healthy lifestyle. Indeed, most of the residents smoked. What saved these people from heart problems, thus making them outliers to the rest of America, was the feeling of security in their community, the sense of belonging. They all seemed to know each and talk to each other and care about each other. Summer evenings were spent with neighbors sitting in backyards sipping homemade wine without a care in the world.
I couldn’t wait to share this with Mary Kay because the little town of Roseto is actually the Pittston of our youth. Gladwell was describing the peaceful lives of our grandparents, who knew and appreciated the importance of good friends.
What Roseto is, what Pittston once was, and what I hope my classes become, is one big family. In families there’s comfort. In families there’s support. In families there’s no fear. Because in families there are no strangers.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.