How My Mother Taught Me to Talk to Strangers

Whenever my mother comes to visit, one of the things we expect to hear is, “I met this really interesting person on the train today!”

My mom is an extrovert: she connects easily with other people, almost to the point where it’s painful for her to be in a room where people aren’t talking with each other. Personally, that means that, if you’re sitting on the train next to her between Ann Arbor and Chicago, you can expect to share your life story. Professionally, it means that she spent her career as a classroom teacher, workshop leader, facilitator, and writer on how to get people interacting with each other.

As my dad is fond of saying, the apple falls not far from the tree.

A couple of years ago my mom was in Minneapolis for her 55th high school reunion, and she called me Sunday afternoon. “Josh, I’ve got to tell you something.”

“What, Mom?”

“This morning, my girlfriends and I were out to brunch and talking. And I was kind of frustrated with the conversation. We were talking about other people in a kind of catty way. And so you know what I did? I reached into my purse and pulled out one your Ask Big Questions card booklets, and I said, ‘Let’s talk about one of these questions!’”

I’ve found in my work that most people like to have conversations about Big Questions, but they often just need a little help, a way in. That’s true for college students. And as my mother illustrates, it’s true even for the most seasoned relationship-builders. Sometimes we just need a little help to get started.

Nowhere is that more true than in conversations about political life. Too often, our political conversations feel stunted, or simply don’t get off the ground at all. Political labels become identity markers, and the costs of political conversation feel too high, and the rewards too low. And yet, I think many of us know that unless we talk about our politics, and unless we find ways to build relationships in spite of our disagreements, our democracy is going to fail.

This past week, in partnership with the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, we introduced our new “Civics Edition” booklets, featuring eight questions to help us talk about the Big Questions underlying this election season specifically, and our civic life in general. The questions include ones like, “Who is in your community?” “For whom are we responsible?” and “How do we disagree?”

In our experience—which includes distributing close to 50,000 of our general conversation card booklets—the act of holding a small booklet of cards in the palm of your hand, and sharing a question with a neighbor, can be both deeply satisfying and surprisingly powerful. I routinely speak to audiences large and small in which everyone has a booklet in front of them. I ask them to find a question that speaks to them and share that question with their neighbor. After ten minutes, it’s hard to get them to stop. And when I ask how they feel, the answers I hear most often are, “Connected, trusting, and surprised at how quickly we found important things in common.”

In a presidential election season, it’s natural to look to the biggest stage and think about grand strategy and national politics. A little booklet of questions doesn’t seem like it’s going to make a difference. But our democracy is only as strong as the relationships between us, and the attitude we carry toward our fellow citizens.

If we are people who don’t talk to strangers and fundamentally distrust each other, then our leadership and our political processes will reflect that. If we are people who do talk to each other, and who develop the habits to trust each other, then two things are true: first, we’ll probably be happier; second, we have a fighting chance that our democracy can confront the problems we face.

By way of conclusion, I want to encourage you to follow my mom’s lead and use our booklets. Carry them in your bag or purse. Leave them on your desk or coffee table. And then follow the instructions: “Start a conversation with a friend, roommate, or stranger. Reflect on the questions. Share your stories. Listen.”

We may think our politics are someone else’s problem, or that they’re a problem too big for us to deal with. But our politics reflect our conversations and our habits of trust. If we want to fix our politics, we have to fix ourselves first. And pound for pound, I think these booklets are the most valuable tools you can find.