I never felt comfortable engaging strangers in conversation when I was growing up. Living in the South, everyone inexplicably wants to talk to everyone. If you are shy, every stranger in the grocery store, every grandma in a restaurant, and even the mailman on the street become the enemy. I was always considered shy, especially in school, and somehow I believed it. During college, I became a resident assistant to alleviate the burdensome expenses of private education. It was a job that made me incredibly uncomfortable, but it also broke me of any habit of not opening my mouth when I had something to say.
Not too long ago, I spent a few days with a college friend who lived near Eastern Market, an historic farmers and craft market I had shockingly never visited while I lived in DC. It was a gorgeous day, and the market was full of locals stocking up on vegetables for the week and tourists shopping for crafts. As we strolled along, a tent overflowing with colorful woven handbags caught my eye. Unsure if I even could squeeze a souvenir into my luggage, I reasoned I’d at least keep the vendor company until another customer came along.
The bags and the salesman turned out to be from Kenya. At the time, I was considering a visit to friends in Nairobi, so my questions naturally poured out: When is a good time to visit? What is the weather like? What is your opinion of Nairobi? Where did you grow up? The man answered all of my questions willingly, though he seemed surprised by my interest. Then we talked about the bags. His mother, who still lived in Kenya, was his sourcing agent. She placed orders with a local women’s group that would weave the bags and decorate the leather, which she then shipped to him in DC. Each bag had a small hand-cut leather label, “Made in Kenya.” I chose a small bag in my favorite color, green, and asked if in future, he’d request the bags to be made in stripes too. I thanked him for the conversation and left.
Whenever I talk with strangers, I am extremely conscious of the conversation, as if I’ve just accepted a challenge: can I successfully balance asking questions with listening and avoiding awkward silences and perhaps even elicit a smile? It is practice for me, helping to make up for my younger years of letting others do the talking. Whenever the conversation is successful, I feel a small sense of accomplishment, as well as gratitude to that person for sharing a few words with me. I learned a lot about him, Kenya, and the bags in our 10-minute chat, yet I also got an added benefit. Had I not been willing to ask the questions I did, it would have just been another handbag. Luckily, the conversation and the person brought the bag to life, and now my bag is a conversation-starter in itself.