Photo: Keith Chastain
On tour with the Commemorative Air Force Airbase Arizona’s B-25 WWII bomber plane, I talk to lots of strangers. As the ride coordinator (yes, the plane still flies, and yes, we do sell rides on it), it’s part of my job. Despite being a natural introvert, I find the experience exhilarating.
People come up and ask all kinds of questions. I don’t have all of the answers, but I’m able to point individuals to fellow volunteers who do have the answers. Together, we make a great team.
I don’t feel nervous to talk to these strangers, nor worried when I can’t answer their questions. Similarly, folks aren’t afraid to ask the queries on their minds. It’s a give-give relationship. I typically don’t initiate a lot of conversations except to say hi and to see if I can help with anything. People come to see a true wonder, one of only about 30 B-25s still flying today — out of 10,000 that were built in the ’40s.
Contrast that with meeting strangers in an elevator. Everyone clams up and stares at the door, waiting for their turn to exit. As part of tour, we volunteers wear uniform shirts that advertise our organization, as well as our names. It’s a little hard to hide in that situation. And it actually serves as a conversation starter in elevators. People are curious and want to know more.
Because we’re on tour for two weeks at a time and wear basically the same thing every day (uniforms), the need to do laundry quickly arises. While at a laundromat to wash that need away, I thought I could advertise for our organization and try to sell some rides on our plane. When I entered the establishment, however, I wanted to hide and blend in, not draw attention to myself. But my name on my shirt made me a bit conspicuous and confounded that desire.
In spite of my introverted tendencies, no one seemed interested in me or my shirt. In fact, no one even talked to me. And I was fine with that.
What’s different between greeting strangers at our airplane and greeting them in an elevator or at a laundromat? I guess I’m more in my comfort zone at the airplane. I have an assigned job and know what’s expected of me. At the laundromat, I have a different job: to do my laundry as a civilian like all of the other civilians there. I’m out of my element of washing my clothes in the comfort of my home. And in an elevator, well, that’s even more different altogether.
Regardless of the situation, though, strangers are people and deserve to be treated as such.
Photo: Aaron B
Technology has evolved to the point that we find ourselves chatting online with robots and navigating automated phone systems. But the PwC Future of Customer Experience Survey 2017/18 found 82% of Americans prefer human interaction to automated alternatives.
That’s a telling indicator that we crave human connections. We can do plenty on our own now simply by holding a small device in our hands: converse with friends around the world, keep up with geographically separated family, and bank and shop without talking to a live person.
Yet we really long for that human contact.
Having worked from home for 17 years while raising my kids before returning to the workforce, I find the corporate office environment fulfilling because of the personal encounters I experience there every day. My husband and I also volunteer at the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum, where I enjoy hearing the stories of fellow volunteers and customers, as well as sharing part of my life with them.
Despite those interactions, I thrive on time by myself, unlike many people. As an introvert, I recharge my batteries by doing things on my own, when I can think through and process daily and weekly events. But too much alone time is not a good thing and can lead my thoughts down a dangerous path. I long for human connections.
One of the best things about interacting with people is it can produce laughter, which is a natural stress release with the power to lighten our moods.
We need each other, plain and simple.
Technology has in many ways made our lives easier, but in other ways, it’s isolated us. Human interactions enrich our lives. We weren’t made to be alone. We truly need each other.
Don’t believe me? The next time you find yourself feeling unfulfilled, I suggest you put your phone down and reach out to a friend or family member, or even start a conversation with a stranger. You might be amazed at the emotional boost you experience as a result.
Loneliness is on the rise, despite our growing connectedness through social media. That’s what a 2018 report by Cigna found. The company surveyed 20,000 Americans to learn their level of solitude and what’s behind it.
Those most affected by loneliness are young adults between the ages of 18 and 22. They no longer fit in with the familiarity of their high school days, but neither do they feel they fit in with adults. It’s a strange time in life. I remember feeling that awkwardness in my day.
I’ve had other lonely times, as well: when I was a stay-at-home mom of my five kids and when I worked from home while my kids were in school. On my loneliest days, I found hanging out at a local coffee shop brought relief, even if I didn’t interact with a lot of people around me. Just being around people helped.
"People will never forget how you made them feel."
The survey found that those who have frequent, meaningful, in-person interactions are the least lonely. And that makes perfect sense. Something about those interactions makes us feel important. So are we any less important when those interactions are lacking? No, but our brains can trick us into thinking otherwise.
What do we do with this information?
It’s clear people need us. Someone needs your smile. Someone needs to know you care. Are you willing to step up to help?
Maybe you’re lonely too. Somebody has to make the first move to reach out. Who knows? You could strike up a wonderful friendship. But even if you don’t, you will have made a difference in someone’s life just by making him or her feel important, like a woman did simply by paying for the coffee of the person behind her in line at Starbucks.
As Poet Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I challenge you to make someone feel significant.
Christian, wife, mother of 5, breast cancer survivor, marathon finisher, writer and editor, author of "Help! I'm a Science Project"