I didn’t hear him the first time he said it.
“I said this paper is bullshit,” he repeated.
It was Tuesday, a week ago. I was on the train home to New Jersey. The person to my left had blurted out the statement as if we’d been talking the whole time.
We hadn’t. I looked to his open laptop for some answers.
I saw a Rutgers University email address at the top of his screen and a mostly blank Word document.
I smiled out of politeness and told him I’d been there before: a stale and strange response.
Then he smiled and extended a hand.
“I’m Jaime,” he said.
I’ve taken the same train ride from New York, where I live, to New Jersey, where my parents live, dozens of times over the past several years. Jaime was the first person who had ever struck up a conversation with me.
Clearly, I was busy: I was reading a book, staring listlessly out the train window every so often, and wondering what I’d eat for dinner. So like most people deep in thought, I found Jaime’s small talk mildly annoying and moderately intrusive.
But then, halfway through our forced conversation on the future of technology, Jaime dropped the bomb: For the last week, he had been speaking to one new person each day, as a way to expose himself to new points of view.
That Tuesday, I was the lucky stranger.
Jaime got off several stops before I did. We shook hands before he left, he congratulating me on the job I started earlier this summer and me wishing him good luck on the interview that brought him to North Jersey. I’ll probably never see him again.
But something struck me about the role I played in Jaime’s life for the 45 minutes we sat together. I was a new experience, something unique and unknown — something that was worth exploring.
I started seeing my otherwise boring literary interests and random daydreams as fodder for a lively discussion. Talking to him made me realise the trivial parts of my day are only trivial because I’ve trained myself to see them that way. I have no sudden urge to “seize the day,” but maybe life’s raft of dull moments aren’t actually all that dull.
Research suggests Jaime’s experiment is a healthy one — at least for Jaime. Social butterflies tend to live longer and enjoy lower rates of mental health issues than people without much social interaction.
At least in my case, the conversation reminded me to be more aware of how actively I can engage with my environment.
Talking to strangers for a week is a gutsy move. But as someone on the other end of the deal, I can confidently say, however selfishly, that there’s nothing like someone being mildly annoying to let you know how numb you’ve been to human interaction all along.
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