24 Oct 2013
“We’re going to a village of 20,000 people in France where everyone is naked!” The woman, who I had never met, confided in me as she was placing her carry-on items onto the conveyor belt to be x-rayed. She was traveling with her husband. Their age well exceeded mine. The husband’s left leg was made of metal and molded plastic and she was bouncing with excitement.
“Is this your first time?” I curiously asked.
“It’s our first time to this nudist village but not our first time. I have stories to tell you…” The women—who I just met less than five minutes ago—proceeded to share their naked escapades.
When I travel, I always bring a book with the intention of being able to read while waiting for the plane to arrive and while inflight. However, I rarely get to read as much as I intend. Instead, I get into conversations with complete strangers who tell me very personal details of their lives. For example, on two different flights in one day, I had two separate women tell me about their hysterectomies. I hadn’t asked anything specific that would lead both women to share this very personal experience, but they both did.
I shared these and other examples of stories that have been told to me with a friend. I wondered if he had similar experiences. He clearly explained, “People share things with you because you ask the follow-up question.”
This gave me pause. It’s true. I find people’s stories interesting and I always ask a follow-up question. Then sometimes I ask a few more. Other times, I just actively listen and people talk to me about whatever they feel like sharing.
It can be a little overwhelming at times. My husband, who rarely asks me for anything, asks that I don’t even make eye contact on long, international flights. He knows if I do, we’re in for 13+ hours of listening to strangers tell stories. And even for me, that’s a bit much. But on shorter flights, I enjoy listening to what people want to share.
People like to share. People need to share. And we need to listen more. We need to listen better. If you’re intentionally performing acts of good each day, some of those good deeds can be the simple act of listening to others. So ask the follow-up question and truly listen to the answer. You never know what the response might lead to. It might even lead to stories that seem very relevant to what you’re working on or what you’re working through.
Another example on a recent flight, my rowmate was a newly retired female airplane mechanic. Our plane was very delayed and we sat on the runway long enough that the flight attendants were able to do a full drink service. In other words, we sat on the runway for hours and then had a few hours of inflight time together. She talked with me about her personal life and her professional work. She shared stories about her transition from a gate agent, which was a common job for a woman in the 1970’s to being an airplane mechanic which was a very uncommon job for a woman in the 1970’s (and even now it’s uncommon for women). She was the only woman in a team of all men. The stories she shared resonated and reminded me that we have a long way to go in diversity and equality in many fields.
I participate in these momentary, fleeting relationships that delve deep very quickly. Maybe it’s the safety of believing we’ll never see that person again. Or maybe it’s the anonymity of not knowing a person’s name that drives the conversation deeper and more quickly than it may normally would. But I’ve come to realize that the reason people share their lives with me is because I ask follow-up questions and I actively listen to their responses.