People enjoy learning from each other when they stop to pay attention

You get an education if you’re one of those people who can talk to anyone. Every week we encounter people who bag our groceries, deliver our mail and make our coffee. The market economy is composed in such a way that not every job is feasibly reproducible by a machine, and so we are granted these wonderful occasions for conversation. Beyond that, we meet many people outside their jobs, passing them by on streets or sitting next to them on buses. One could very easily pass up these possibilities for dialogue, but if you have the gift of gab, then every mundane interaction suddenly becomes an opportunity to extract some condensed experience—to enjoy people’s company and to learn from them.

What you will find is two-fold. First, people are always smarter than you think (only at the high levels of government or business is the reverse true). Second, everybody has a story; everybody teaches a lesson.

There was the guy blocking my view of the farfalle in the pasta aisle. After I introduced myself, and kindly asked him to move, we somehow got on the topic of his experience immigrating to the U.S. Then there was Kenneth, who plays chess on the Atlantic City boardwalk and is willing to challenge all opponents. While handily wrecking my game, he expounded on the virtues of patience, deliberate thinking and planning ahead.

"You can’t have your pieces out there premature, doing things that are immature, prematurely," he soulfully intoned as he took my queen for a sideways ride off the board. I’ve repeated this practical wisdom to myself many times since.

The man handing out popcorn in Macy’s complains about the corporate dress code. Specifically, he is aggrieved by the suit he has to wear while working in jewelry, as if someone in a jacket and tie won’t offer you the same bad deals. And Lenny, my grandparents’ neighbor, trades WWII stories for companionship, and dispenses tried-and-true business tips.

A robust grandmother raising her daughter’s infant and her own 10-year-old schooled me on how to comfort any child while we waited together in a check-out line that seemed to last forever. All the while she swore up and down that these would be the last two; she had already raised 10.

And I’ll never forget the lady sitting on a park bench who lectured to me about time, and how it speeds up as we age; everyone else I’ve polled since agrees that it does. It seems all human animals know a little something about the species.

Sometimes these passerby experts disagree. Mary, the mousy wife who works in the State Police video lab, says the years she took out of her career to stay home and raise her children were the best of her life. Diane, who I met in line for a movie, advises against this kind of thing—they’ll make you crazy, she says. Chalk that one up to different strokes for different folks.

But most of the time they form an overlapping consensus. The people who answer your calls to customer service hotlines are the best. If you reach them at the right time of day (after lunch when their blood-sugar is high), they are very eager to go off-script, and there’s ample time for chatter as various supervisors are reached and databases consulted.

Sharon, who stayed on the line for a full hour and a half sorting out a discrepancy between my bank and her company, told me about her new baby and how they just started letting her work from home. She also said that full-moon nights are the worst to work, because it seems people with the strangest problems always call on full-moon nights. My mother and father, who met each other while working for a volunteer ambulance corps, concur; the craziest calls come in while a full moon is high in the sky. The emergency room nurse I sat next to during an hour-long flight delay agrees too—I think her name was Brenda.

The point is that I could have missed out on all of this experience, been deprived of these fruits of wisdom, if I buried myself in my own busy day-to-day life. When we don’t stop and get each other’s stories, we fail to capitalize on all the possibilities of human communication. We trap ourselves in our own singular experience of life—neglecting the other possibilities playing out for other people.

So next time you’re out and about in public, remember to experience other people. Introduce yourself, ask a question, and most of all, listen to each other.

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