My work takes me to lots of different places, mostly Japan. My home is in Silicon Valley, California, and I’ve lived there for as long as what my dad calls “a coon’s age” . . . which never made sense to me because i don’t think racoon’s live that long, but – hey – I’m no expert on mammals. Having lived there almost 2 decades I’ve made a boatload of wonderful friends. Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends, but traveling as much as I do, my friends are often thousands of miles away and 17 time zones off. I;ve had to learn to make do without them most of the time.
No worries, it’s “strangers to the rescue”! Yes, I’ve found that strangers make the best friends. They don’t know my checkered past, are fascinated by me (mostly because they don’t know me well), and are not yet irritated with my habits and quirks. In fact, strangers frequently find my curious behaviors somewhat intriguing, even considering them among my positive traits. And, since they haven’t had to put up with me for a decade or more of friendship, they are more tolerate of my playful, sometimes hyperactive, behavior. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for a friend who may be disguised as a stranger. As a result I form what are called “Temporary Meaningful Relationships” (TMR) with delightful people from all over the world. A TMR may be a discussion in French on a Tokyo train with a girl dressed in her school uniform who happens to be Studying her French lesson while commuting the hour home, or a pleasant walk through an ancient city with a person who wants to practice their English by touring some whacky American around.
For example, last week I was minding my own business in a Tokyo restaurant, ordering from a menu I couldn’t read, when a perfectly fascinating stranger dining 2 tables over in the “foreigner” section starting a lively conversation with me. We discovered a common flaw, our obsession with project management, and ordered more and more surprising dishes. I’m quite sure that this was among the more thoroughly enjoyable dinner conversations of the past month. He left seeming to think that I was a throughly fascinating person, and I have the added advantage that I don’t have to remain pleasant to uphold that image during years of continuing friendship. Last month I met a US Serviceman on his way to the US who was denied access to the Airline Frequent Flyer Lounge, so I invited him in as my guest and spent a chatty 4 hours hanging out and drinking the free booze. He felt like he was getting the royal treatment, and I was delighted to share this luxurious interlude with someone who really appreciated the experience.
Connecting with English speaking strangers is fun, but even more thrilling is connecting with people with whom I barely share a common language. My knowledge of the Japanese language is so minute that it could be stuffed up an ants ass and would still rattle around like a bee-bee in a box car. So when I meet Japanese people who don’t speak much English (fewer and fewer, these days, as most Japanese have an amazing ability with the English language, in spite of their protests to the contrary), I find additional relationship benefits of a TMR. When communication is reduced to a few polite phrases and some energetic gesturing it’s also freed from the dangers of veering into inappropriate conversation territory or pissing someone off with what I say. Sure, I’m trying to learn Japanese, but I wonder if that’s such a great idea. Better to leave them wishing that they could understand what I’m saying, and not realizing what a double edged sword that could be.
Even among people who have known each other for years and speak the same language, communication is fraught with pitfalls and misunderstandings. TMRs can be a welcome change from deep and meaningful conversations with people who know us well enough to hurt our feelings or use what we say against us in the future. Perhaps we’d all get along a lot better if we didn’t understand exactly what other people were saying!by