Stop and Talk to Strangers

While I am definitely skeptical of much of Robert Putnam’s work, I am fascinated by one of his core theories: the root cause of many of our social ills is a decrease in what he calls “social capital” – the value created by human interaction and association.

One reason our social capital has decreased, he says, is that people’s time is increasingly privatized – instead of doing social activities, we spend time alone.

So I couldn’t help but think of Putnam this morning when, while waiting for the bus and reading for class, a strange man decided that was a good opportunity to strike up a conversation with me.

Like, I would guess, many other people, I was happy to tell him that, no, the Metro on the seat next me wasn’t mine and he was welcome to take it. But once that pleasantry was out of the way, I rather thought our interact was over.

But, he wanted to talk about Tsarnaev. And he wanted to talk about the T driver who was recently suspended for sleeping on the job. And he wanted to talk about the tragedy of the recent plane crashes in Alaska and San Fransisco.

My immediate reactions were that 1) I really did want to get some reading done and 2) I probably should be a little leary of chatting with strange men.

Then I remembered that interactions with strangers can provide just as much value as reading and that I was a bus stop, in daylight, at a busy place and it wasn’t like I had to tell him all my personal information. So I decided, sure, let’s chat, stranger.

He read over my shoulder that I was reading “The Nature and Intentions of the Argument” (which is actually a subheader, but that’s neither here nor there).

“Aww,” he said. “I never argue. If you argue, you’ll just lose.”

“What you got to do,” he explained, “Is sit down with someone – really talk face to face – and say, ‘this is the way shit is, how are we going to figure out how to make this work?'”

That was much more succinctly articulated version of what was essentially the thesis to our reading earlier this week – Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes.

So as I sat there, thinking about Putnam saying we’re anti-social, thinking of Saul Alinsky who successfully organized with a stranger at a bus stop, and wondering how this kind of dialogue would fit into what J├╝rgen Habermas would call the “Life World,” I thought, “Okay, this is a nice chat. Thanks, Billy.”

That’s right, I learned his name.

So I guess we’re not strangers any more.

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