Would you tell a stranger your life story if they asked?
I began realizing and understanding the complexities of this question as I sat by myself at am empty table with a humble sign that says, “Tel me your story, free coffee!” I await nervously, making eye contact and throwing out polite “hello’s” to every passer-byer.
Frankly, it reminds me of those first days back to school, when you wonder if your friends have the same lunch schedule as you sit alone at an empty table that suddenly seems bigger than before.
Why on Earth would anyone subject themselves to this?
Well, I once read an article about a man who sat outside a coffee shop and offered a free cup of jo to anyone who would listen to his story. Nobody sat down with him, so he changed it to “tell me YOUR story,” and dozens of strangers stopped to tell him about their life. I loved this idea of simply listening to people, broadening my own perspective, and showing people attention simply because we are all united as people. Sometimes, we need someone just to listen anyway, so I thought it would be cool to be that person.
I did need some encouragement though. The idea of just going for it is intimidating, but in one of my classes, my Chinese Philosophy professor offered an extra-credit assignment if we changed or added a weekly ritual into our life to alter our reactions with others, and recorded our findings. I thought, “How cool! I finally have a reason to put these thoughts into action.” So I wrote out my plan, and handed it in.
After about a week of hesitation, I realized that this is harder than it sounded. I kept picturing myself in this situation. What if nobody comes? What if they find this creepy or offensive? What if people think I drugged the coffee? Ugh.
Finally, I put on my big girl panties, made four cups of coffee, and headed to the student center.
After just a few minutes, a semi-familiar face approached me, loving my idea. I offered her a seat, and explained my situation to her, and she agreed to telling me a story. After a bit of brainstorming and encouragement, she told me a happy memory of hers. Something meaningful. How neat! Her eyes glimmered as she mentioned how she first felt that she had found true friends at the university. I smiled when she finished, and we reminisced on those “flying moments” where the world fades away because you have people that matter more than anything else. I thought it was a very lovely experience for the both of us. After she finished, I thanked her, and she thanked me in return, even though I never even gave her coffee. Just ears. I suppose people like to be heard.
A family passed by, and teased their young daughter about telling a stranger her life story. They all had a good laugh as she promptly turned red as a tomato. On their way out, her grandmother stopped and told me she loved the idea. She had worked with victims of crime for years, and dropped her joking tone as she told me, “Everyone has a story. And they all want to tell it!” I smiled at her advice as she wished me luck and regrouped with her family.
Next, I found a girl who seemed a bit more skeptical of the idea. I told her I wasn’t here to judge her, but just to listen. On a whim of trust, she sat down, then realized she had no idea what to say. I chuckled a bit, telling her I’d listen to anything. She hesitated and began with an introduction of herself, then stopped wondering what to say next. I don’t want to force people to talk to me, but fostering comfort in the conversation was difficult for me as well. I’m quite introverted, but I’m trying to make myself more approachable. I threw out a few suggestions, and she gave me a brief summary of herself lacking a love life, and some drama with her friends, then she stopped once again. I could tell she was regretting this. I thought it was time to put her out of her misery, so I thanked her for her time, and wished her well as she thanked me too (she didn’t take the coffee either).
Apparently, noon on a Saturday is prime naptime across campus, because nobody seemed to walk by for an hour. I sat waiting, getting an occasional nod, or a returned “hello.”
It was still a unique experience despite my conversations lacking in number and in depth, people seemed so interested in the concept of someone giving up time to listen to strangers. To most of the students, it they acted as if it was risky. Perhaps they were afraid of “stranger danger,” or feared getting coffee from an open container. I don’t blame them, I don’t know if I’d have to courage to pour my heart out to some random girl with a crappy sign and a pot of coffee either.
Next time I do this, I’d like to go to a more mature area. I’d love to hear from the elderly, because they have more to tell, and from what I have seen, they’re more ready to tell people stories. I don’t understand why age seems to change our perspective on strangers the way it does, or if maybe I just see this because a skinny nineteen year old girl seems less intimidating to them than to my peers.
Though it was one of the more awkward experiences I’ve had, it was very intriguing, and I feel like this project can become very interesting and meaningful in time. I can’t wait to do it again (even though I can)!