Talk to Strangers—Everybody Has a Story

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In a recent episode of the Radiolab podcast, producer Latif Nasser shares some of his techniques for finding stories to research and write about. The episode grows from this article, in which Nasser offers even more techniques, which range from setting Google alerts to rummaging around in library collections of personal papers and oral histories to repeatedly clicking the “random article” button on Wikipedia.

I won’t list all of Nasser’s techniques, since you can click over to the article or podcast more easily than I can summarize them. His techniques are helpful, and I commend them to you. The most helpful thing about Nasser’s remarks, however, is his approach to story-finding almost as a lifestyle, or perhaps a philosophy.

We all need to be in the habit of noticing, of keeping our eyes open to the marvels that surround us every minute of every day.

Nasser writes,

There are more than seven and a half billion people out in the world. Presume that 1% of them have fascinating, dynamic, newsworthy things happening to them in any given week. You think that the Washington Post or Buzzfeed or the BBC, or really all of the mainstream media outlets combined could possibly cover seventy-five million stories per week? No way. And that’s just alive people’s stories! There are also dead people and animals and businesses and ecosystems and microbes and consumer goods and planets and laws and inanimate objects . . . they all have stories, too.

Most of us aren’t journalists hunting up stories to feed the deadline machine. Nevertheless, to be attentive to the stories around us is to acknowledge the plenitude in which we find ourselves and to live more fully in it. We live in a world of wonders. To be in touch with more stories than our own is to live more than one life.

My favorite of Nasser’s techniques is perhaps the most obvious. It is certainly the most old-school: Talk to strangers. “Everybody around you has stories,” he says. “The whole world is like that.”

I try to make it a habit to talk to strangers, to ask them where they came from, ask them about their work, ask them what sort of changes they’ve noticed in the years they have walked the earth. If they are my parents’ age or older, I ask them if they remember the first time they ate pizza. That question yields surprisingly good stories. Sometimes I ask people if they’ve ever been bitten by a dog.

Sometimes I run into people who are so inattentive to their own lives that they don’t think they’ve got any stories to tell. Once I was in line at a convenience store behind a man whose t-shirt read “RJ Corman Derailment Services.” The man’s job was to clean up train wrecks! I tried to start a conversation with him: “In that business I bet you have some stories to tell,” I said.

He shrugged. “It’s a job,” he said. “Just like any other job.”

Anyway, all this talk about talking to strangers reminded me of an encounter I had in the Green Hills library. Below is what I wrote about it on my blog in 2010. I notice that I mention train derailment in that piece too. That is purely a coincidence.

To be in touch with more stories than our own is to live more than one life.

Jonathan Rogers

A while back I was in the library checking my email on the public computers. The patrons of the library’s public computers constitute what may politely be called a cross-section of humanity. At my library, they don’t just let you sit at whichever computer you like. They assign you one, and it’s right next to the person who sat down just before you did. Which is to say, there isn’t any of that natural spacing of the discreet whereby two people in an elevator stand in the back corners and the third person stands in the middle right by the door. No, at the library computers you’re spang up against the next fellow. The fellow I was spang up against was managing his account at an online dating site. He was a white-haired, paunchy old boy with a long, straight nose that bulged off to the left just at the tip-end, putting me in mind of a train that derailed right before pulling into the station. Every half-minute or so, he chuckled at something some dating prospect or other had written in her profile, wagging his head each time and cutting his eyes over toward me. Clearly he hoped I would ask him what he was laughing about or otherwise engage him in conversation. I was determined not to. I was in a bit of a hurry–just trying to check my email and get out of there–and I wasn’t up to it anyway.

Soon my neighbor wandered away from the dating site and to a medical self-diagnosis site. He stopped chuckling and instead made little murmurs of interest–or maybe it was concern. I didn’t take the bait. I was locked on to that email. At last the man nudged me with his elbow. He pointed at his screen. “How would you pronounce that word?” he asked.

I looked at his screen. “Splanchnoptosis, I guess.” I went back to my email.

“Splanchnoptosis,” he repeated. “Prolapse or backward displacement of an organ in the abdomen.” He rubbed his ample belly. “I’m pretty sure that’s what I’ve got,” he said. I glanced in his direction and gave a quick, sympathetic nod, then looked off, hoping he would get the message.

The man turned his chair to face me. “You probably didn’t know that you can cure cancer with baking soda, did you?”

It finally occurred to me that whatever my email said, it wasn’t going to be nearly as interesting as the things this old boy had to say. I turned my chair too, and we were face to face.

“That’s right,” he said. “Some doctors in Italy taped pouches of baking soda under the armpits of women with breast cancer. Six weeks later, the tumors were gone. No surgery. No chemo. No radiation. I saw it on YouTube.” He crossed his arms triumphantly, as if he had been one of the Italian doctors who made the discovery. “It’s all about the pH levels.”

He extended a thick right hand in my direction. “I’m David,” he said.

I shook his hand. If I told him my name, I’m quite sure he didn’t hear it. He was off again. “But there’s no money in baking soda, is there? Where would the medical-industrial complex be if everybody was controlling their pH levels with baking soda and wasn’t getting cancer? What would the doctors do? You can’t make the mortgage on one of those doctor houses by selling baking powder, can you?”

David looked behind him as if to be sure nobody was eavesdropping, though he was speaking so excitedly now that I suppose everybody in the computer room could hear every word, unless they were wearing foam earplugs. He leaned in close. “You know who built all the hospitals, don’t you?”

I shook my head.

“The Rockerfellers. That’s who. The same Rockerfellers that are in charge of everything else. You think that’s a coincidence, that the Rockerfellers built all those hospitals and the Rockerfellers are in charge of our health policy? You want to know why you didn’t know baking soda is the cure for cancer?” He snorted disdainfully. “Ask the Rockerfellers. Only they won’t tell you.”

David gestured toward the people who were lined up outside the computer room for early voting. “It’s like I told one of the women out there,” he said. “I said, ‘Do you really think you’re smart enough to vote? Do you think you can outwit the military-medical-industrial complex? Because that’s who runs things around here. Do you think you’re smarter than the Rockerfellers?'”

To think my natural inclination was to ignore this guy.

“But there’s no telling what women want, is there?” David said. I wasn’t sure if that was a rhetorical question. “I know what women want,” he said, “and I know how to give it to them.” He leaned in even closer than before and assumed a confidential tone. “They just want somebody who will listen.”

What interesting stories have you heard from strangers? Leave one in the comments section.

Also, I recently had a conversation about The Habit and writing habits for 2019 with Chase Replogle for his podcast, The Pastor Writer. You can listen here.

Photograph by Matthew Gibson: “After Titarenko”

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


5 Comments

  1. I.J. Henry

    @i-j-henry

    Dear Jonathan Rogers, my name is IJ henry. about a month ago me and my four siblings, with my mom, went to each lunch at chick-fil-a, after we all finished school. well, whenever we were just finishing our meal, an older man was laughing at my little sister and began to talk about she reminded him of his little granddaughter. he said we were all bright children and were capable of doing anything we could imagine. then he began to tell me about how he was in the US air force and was privileged to work on special NASA space shuttle equipment, and I love air force stuff so it was so amazing to get to meet someone in that action. he showed me a special card that allowed him to access shuttle launchings. he told me a few stories how normal soldiers were able to use their talents for NASA and all that started with my little sister. whenever we were done we said goodbye to the man, but that was just another instance of someone having something amazing they can tell you. you just have to listen!

  2. The Warren & the World Vol 7, Issue 2

    […] Most of us aren’t journalists hunting up stories to feed the deadline machine. Nevertheless, to be attentive to the stories around us is to acknowledge the plenitude in which we find ourselves and to live more fully in it. We live in a world of wonders. To be in touch with more stories than our own is to live more than one life. Read more […]

  3. Amanda Cleary Eastep

    Wonderful post, Jonathan. I’m eager to read Nasser’s article as well. Talking to strangers has been something my grown children and I have enjoyed for years. In fact, my youngest (as a ministry too) hosts weekly “teas” in her apartment for elderly women who live in the same building. Probably one of the most interesting conversations my middle daughter and I had was with a man cycling on the less traveled trail we were hiking in the woods. My daughter and I had stopped to take photos of a huge and unusually-shaped tree. Seeing us, the man hopped off his bike to tell us the tree was a vortex (could we sense that too?) and that as soon as his time machine arrived (via mail order), he was going to try it out beside the tree. We never did see him again. 🙂 Of course I had to blog about the encounter, which left me the richer for the story I get to tell now and the other stories my mind started to weave as I imagined where and when and why this man might go.

  4. Amanda Cleary Eastep

    @amandace

    Wonderful post, Jonathan. I’m eager to read Nasser’s article as well. Talking to strangers has been something my grown children and I have enjoyed for years. In fact, my youngest (as a ministry too) hosts weekly “teas” in her apartment for elderly women who live in the same building. Probably one of the most interesting conversations my middle daughter and I had was with a man cycling on the less traveled trail we were hiking in the woods. My daughter and I had stopped to take photos of a huge and unusually-shaped tree. Seeing us the man hopped off his bike to tell us the tree was a vortex (could we sense that too) and that as soon as his time machine arrived (via mail order), he was going to try it out beside the tree. We never did see him again. 🙂 Of course I had to blog about the encounter, which left me the richer for the story I get to tell now and the other stories my mind started to weave as I imagined where and when and why this man might go.

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