As I mentioned a few days ago, I tend to keep my head down when traveling around the city. So when I got on a crowded bus last week, I expected to do as I always do: not make eye contact, not engage, just ride the bus and get where I am going.
I was able to secure a seat and an older gentlemen sat down next to me. He had attempted to offer the seat to a nearby woman, who didn’t respond to him. As he sat down, he mumbled under his breath, “Well if she isn’t going to take it, I will.” I instantly thought of my experience Monday and how I needed to lighten up a little bit, so I chuckled in response and said something like “I hear ya.”
“I tried to offer,” he said, “but if she doesn’t want it, then I’m old! I’ll take it.”
We shared another chuckle and then, somehow, struck up a conversation. It started out lighthearted, discussing things you encounter taking public transit. We laughed a bit at the personal hygiene habits of other passengers, or rather the lack of personal hygiene habits of other passengers. He mentioned that when he was in Vietnam they would use toothpaste to clean under their arms when they ran out of soap. I realized suddenly that I could either leave this as a surface conversation or actually connect with a stranger.
So I asked about Vietnam. He got quiet for a moment, but continued, telling me a few stories and what his experience was like. I was a little surprised that he opened up in the way he did, and I tried appreciate his candidness, even though I really didn’t know what to say. The conversation turned somewhat lighthearted again, and soon after my stop came up. We said our goodbyes and I went on my way.
When I struck up the conversation, I didn’t expect it to take such a serious turn. When it took that turn, I felt unsure of how to be sensitive to his experiences. Something inside me knew that it was a topic to handle with care, but how to do that was not something I could get a grasp on. But I guess that’s part of taking risks: the not knowing, the being unsure, the questioning.
Thankfully, the payoff is usually worth the risk.