Friday, 22 February 2013

Chance Encounters and Random Conversations

I want to regurgitate to you an insightful conversation I had with a friend regarding, ironically, conversations. Let’s call him Joe.

Joe referred to a speech he heard describing Canadian homes as being like vaults or safes. “It’s not easy for people to invite others into their homes or open it up to strangers,” he said in more or less those words. Inviting people into your home is a powerful thing – it abandons pretenses and prejudices, evokes openness and ingenuity. But, he points out, “mostly, we meet at coffee shops or bars instead of having chance encounters and random conversations…”
A random encounter in Brussels led to dinner with Ata, a lovely and wise old man - twice! 
Conversations are human’s biological tool to communicate with the world around us. They enable us to exchange information critical to our daily survival. They also enrich our lives by allowing us to share laughs and smiles and build friendships. Conversations allow us, quite simply, to connect with other people. However, conversation is becoming a lost art. And here’s why: in today’s fast paced society we, as individuals, try to make sense of the chaos in our lives by exerting too much control over our time.

Every time block of our lives is becoming compartmentalized for specific tasks. As a result, we have become slaves to our own agendas. Every week, day and even hour is mentally predestined. We are either living in the future or dwelling on the past. During scheduled appointments half our minds are already on the next appointment. We hurry from place to place not even factoring in time for traffic delays, as if expecting the vehicles on the street to magically part like the Red Sea for Moses.

The time stress we induce on our own psyches is phenomenal. Yet today it’s become a sort of badge of honour to be busy. Recognition is heaped upon productivity superstars, reputation bestowed upon ultra-performers, with jealous competitors not far behind, taking on more aggressive schedules to get ahead. Sacrificed, in the name of efficiency overdrive is quality and integrity, fostered only with patience and care. With less time, everything we do is more prone to mistakes. With less time, we put on a superficial mask in front of everyone we meet.

With less time there is less opportunity for, you guessed it, chance encounters and random conversations. No time for a bump and a chat with a friend on the street. Time to help somebody who is lost find their way. Time to invite people into our homes. No, there is only time to share a quick drink at a coffee shop before our next task beckons.

Sometimes not even that. Joe told me how frustrated he became when we were having trouble meeting up before I left on my trip because he was too busy. “I did not have the flexibility to change my schedule to have that spontaneity… we try to force randomness in our schedule rather than providing randomness the opportunity to find us.”
Free hugs event in London - random encounters at its awkwardest! 
Individuals in our rushed culture are compartmentalizing more than just their time. Private vehicles are isolating commuters from interacting with strangers on the sidewalk or on buses or subways. Our homes, like broken ice sheets in the Antarctic, are drifting further apart, isolating us from our neighbours. The homes themselves are becoming larger and filled with more and more valuable possessions, further ensuring that we will never trust strangers in our home. Not so in other cultures such as India, where people live in smaller and denser tight-knit communities, have fewer possessions in their homes but are very warm and welcoming.

Planning out our lives, whether it’s the next 5 years or 5 minutes, gives us some stability amidst unpredictability, but we lose the magic of the moment. Nowhere have I learned this lesson more than in long-term travelling. Abandoning nearly all my possessions, concrete plans and time constraints, I find myself open to chance encounters and meetings. Each meeting brings with it the potential for fun and adventure, and is not considered time wasted or a distraction. Some meetings blossom into stronger connections. But at the very least I get a smile, an assurance that I made someone's day better.

I told my friend that “back home we are all about individuality. We each have ambitions and needs which don’t really fit into harmony with other people’s lives, and so we exclude them. Travelling forces us to intertwine our fates with others.” But even most of us travel on prepackaged vacations designed for maximum privacy with a nice beachfront view.
Budapest host - Couchsurfing means opening up your home - whether it's 1 or 6 people! 
So try something different for once. Clear your schedule for the following week as much as possible. When that week arrives, you may find yourself more relaxed, clear of mind, even a little excited about the endless possibilities of a week with no obligations. Anything can happen. Randomness is invited. Don't worry, it may feel a little strange at first to have nothing to do or worry about, but you'll grow into it.

I would like to conclude with some excerpts from Joe's closing rant: “when you’re not busy it is easy to feel alone because everyone is busy so you feel the need to compete… but if you don’t have the time just to have the opportunity for randomness and for keeping your doors open… how are we supposed to connect with people beyond a superficial level?”


  1. Great write up Andrew. I totally agree with you about how inhospitable 'western' societies are becoming in the face of rampant consumerism and our obsession with time. Time is now constructed and measured against our notions of how 'productive' we are with it in our capitalist system.

    I hate the fact that even after nearly a year of cycling I still cannot escape from this mindset. Today when I had a day off in Tbilisi I couldn't help feeling alone, and I think your mates insightful comment is spot on: 'when you're not busy it is easy to feel alone...'


  2. Good to hear from you Chris. I'm disappointed at deciding not to go to Georgia, so you'll have to tell me how it is! Being born and raised big city style I get the same feeling as you from time to time. You just have to learn to live with it! Maybe try going for a slow walk around town, people watch...

  3. If you do decide to make your way back to Calgary, know that there are some who feel the same about opening the doors of their homes and connecting with other human beings. I recently came across We Should Know Each Other:

    Somehow I feel like you might already know about it, though. Hope you are well, Yan-Tai!