Talking to strangers: Beyond casual conversation

Jennifer Moiles

American expat seeking extraordinary conversationalists, idealistic realists, and change-makers for perspective-changing conversations.

Here’s why:

I’m an American expat living in Eindhoven. And I’m curious. I want to know everything about the Dutch, my new community, and all of Europe for that matter, and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve been stretched out of my comfort zone, and that sometimes causes me to turn inward, keep my head down, or to have hesitation before I choose to embark on an adventure, or start a conversation. Will I get lost? Will I be able to communicate? What if I get on the wrong train, or inadvertently do something deemed stupid, rude or ignorant? And being an expat wife – not working yet – sometimes means long days of talking to no one, save for maybe a few light Facebook conversations or thumbs up, which, in the scheme of things, are fairly unsatisfying.

I can and do keep myself “busy” well enough. I have a lot of interests and goals, and am reaching out to pursue them. But it takes time, and patience – more than usual when everything is new and translation is challenging. I make a lot of (time consuming) mistakes. This is part of growth, I understand. I am grateful for this opportunity. In a way it is a blissful state, to be an “expat” – thousands of miles away from the routine, intensity, and tensions of home; at the same time sheltered from the daily grind of my immediate surroundings by my inability to comprehend most of what I read and hear. (Dutch lessons are on my to-do list).

Nonetheless, I don’t want to leave the Netherlands, whenever that day should come, and feel as if I missed an opportunity to make friends and alliances, understand the local culture and its nuances, and gain insight into the political and social benefits and difficulties as compared to those in my native country. I am easily bored with shallow conversations about nothing in particular – (“how bout that rain…” or “Oh, you’re American, are you guys seriously going to elect Donald Trump???”). (Just for the record, not if I can help it).

I want to get to know you – the Dutch, as well as other internationals among us. And, yes, I want to hear your truths and musings about everything! I want to hear about your life – what do you love about it? What do you love about the Netherlands? What was your childhood like? Where are the opportunities for change? What is your passion and how are you changing the world for the better? Talk to me about healthcare, the refugee crisis, education, and the best and worst social programs and circumstances in your country, as you see it. Then tell me, what do you admire and what do you find misguided or distasteful about America?

If we can handle that, maybe we can go a little deeper. Let’s delve into our shadow sides – what causes us grief and angst; what keeps us up at night? What triggers us? It’s true, we all have a dark side, if neatly and methodically tucked away. I think there’s much to learn by engaging with it, examining, mirroring – even just becoming more aware. And we’re strangers, so, there’s no risk. Relationships, sex, aliens. Regrets. War and peace. Why not? With any luck, by the time we reach the bottom of our cappuccinos, each of us will have had the opportunity to see something differently.

I’m often overwhelmed, horrified or deflated when I look at the news. There can be a fine line between staying engaged and being immobilized by the negativity and horrific images coming to us from around the world. But I do wish to illuminate as many of my blind spots as I possibly can; take advantage of this opportunity I have to really see and understand a larger swath of this world. I believe in serendipity – that there is a cosmic reason why I ended up here; how we happened to be sitting next to one another in a café, or walking our dogs in the park at the same time. It’s been my experience that random conversations with strangers can be some of the most interesting and perspective-changing. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that genuine, in-person conversations, rich with old-fashioned indulgences such as close proximity, eye contact and the benefit of candid body language, will facilitate much needed understanding, sensitivity, and compassion, and help us to find solutions for the world’s ills (and our own), as well as the confidence and courage to take action.

And I believe we each make an impact beyond what we give ourselves credit for.

Our decision to keep our eyes up and to engage with strangers as we each traverse this city is an impactful one. When I do go out with my head up and my heart open, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and moved by the people I meet and the things I learn about myself and the world. The more we allow ourselves to be pleasantly surprised by the amazing souls around us, the less afraid we become. When we are not afraid, our hearts expand, as does our propensity for compassion, understanding and peace. So lets have a conversation today, and pay it forward by having another tomorrow.

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