I’m fairly confident that in the whole of my adult life I’ve had but two completely successful conversations with total strangers. I’m 26 years old. I’ve met a lot of people. My batting average would indicate that I’m not making any conversational highlight reels.
Except for two occasions.
The first was on a beach in Pensacola, Florida. It was early morning and I was killing time by wandering along the tracts of sand that stretch between the shore and the hotels. The entire area was noticeably deserted save for one man in the distance carrying a couple of golf clubs over his shoulder. The man -- presumably returning from sinking a few dozen dimpled balls into nature’s big blue driving range -- and I were headed in opposite directions and quickly approaching one another.
“How are the fairways this morning?” I asked when I was close enough to catch his eye.
“Better than the office,” he answered in stride without awaiting a reply.
Crack! A clean line drive up the middle. A nice piece of hitting, as they might say. It’s one that stands out in my memory.
Of course it’s smug and trite and the exact sort of unoriginal exchange that, if placed in a crappy movie, would have me audibly groaning. But it’s important to understand that, for me, real-life moments like this just don’t happen. I never know what to say or when to say it and I’m incredibly jealous of my friends who can create jovial, seamless conversation out of thin air with people they barely know. It’s a truly enviable characteristic. Meanwhile, I’ve always been the introvert who avoids eye contact at the last second when passing someone on the sidewalk. When a pretty girl takes the seat next to me on the bus, it’s hard for me not to breathe a heavy sigh of relief when she breaks out her iPod and I can peacefully reflect on all of the painfully awkward conversation that we’ve escaped.
After two months in site, it’s become apparent that talking to strangers is something I better get comfortable with real fast. Because, let’s be honest, that’s who I’m surrounded by right now. With some legitimate exceptions, the overwhelming majority of my 300-person community and I still don’t really know each other. And if I want that to change, the burden is on me. Everyone else in this community already has established lives and relationships to keep themselves preoccupied. I’m the one trying to construct an existence from the ground up. Succumbing to my normal level of verguenza out here in the campo probably isn’t going to get me anywhere – socially, professionally, mentally.
My second successful conversation occurred a couple years back while idling on a tarmac in Cheyenne, Wyoming. After spending the first leg of the evening’s cross-country flight restlessly positioned in a middle seat, I was not only relieved that we’d successfully landed amid thunderstorms but that we’d managed to do so with enough time left for me to make my connection. I shut my book and hurriedly stuffed it in my backpack alongside my iPod and coiled headphones, those precious items that act as a universal conversational buffer in forced social situations. It was only then that the captain welcomed his passengers to their current destination – not Denver International as scheduled but rather Cheyenne, where we’d have the pleasure of waiting out the weather for an indefinite period of time, sorry for the inconvenience, thank you for your patience, more updates to follow.
And then, amidst the requisite chorus of moaning such situations elicit, the gentleman seated to my immediate right made some innocuous comment in my direction. I can’t recall exactly what he said – assuredly something in the realm of meteorology or FAA regulations or crying infants or peanuts or what have you – but it was enough to draw an equally harmless response from myself. And from there it snowballed.
Before long this stranger and I, after sitting elbow-to-elbow in silence for the previous three hours, were deep in legitimate, easy conversation. We talked about the hospital in Sacramento where he worked as a doctor and the research he was involved in. We talked about the medical convention he was returning from in New Orleans and compared our thoughts on the city, its people and its cuisine. We discussed my job with AmeriCorps and his past international volunteer work. We talked about being in your early twenties, relatively fresh out of college and how it compares to being in your late fifties with children in their early twenties, relatively fresh out of college. We shared our respective experiences living in the forgotten capitals of big states. We talked about the NBA and MLB, about small-market basketball and big-market baseball.
And then, three hours later, we finally landed in Denver.
Right now, based mostly on my lingering language inefficiencies, it’s a tall order to have that level of conversation with a fellow Paraguayan community member whom I’ve yet to meet. But I definitely don’t think it’s impossible and I think that it’s crucial to try. And I’m a firm believer that there is always room to try harder. For as long as I’m in Paraguay, I’m going to have to take off my headphones, make eye contact and force my way through the uncomfortable small-talk on the way to building real relationships. There’s really no other way to both make this experience worthwhile and, in exchange, invest myself and my energy back into the community.
Years from now, I will be deep in conversation with the person next to me on a cross-country flight. It doesn’t really matter who started talking first, but I’d like to think that I finally did. Maybe the conversation will somehow come around to Peace Corps. “So,” my curious new friend will ask, “how was the Paraguayan campo?”
As I close my book and tuck it beneath the seat in front of me, I hope I’m able to sincerely respond, “Better than the office.”