Reflections On An Unexpected Conversation With A Stranger


A bizarre thing happened to me last night.

I was having drinks at a rooftop bar with some colleagues, and I noticed a man standing near us, beer in hand, not doing anything. Not playing on his phone, or giving girls sleazy looks. Just standing there. He looked about 50 years old. I became curious as to what he was doing there.

He had quite a friendly face, so I thought ‘what the hell’, and approached him, said hello, and asked if he was waiting for someone.  He said no, he had just moved into an apartment down the road, and was checking out the local haunts. Without thinking, I blurted out “Oh that’s exciting!”

“Well”, he said, “I’ve just split up with my wife of 30 years.” Oh. Not so exciting.

But he didn’t seem too fazed, he just looked incredibly relieved to have someone to talk to. He seemed quite open, so I asked him more about his life.

Soon he was sharing all sorts of things with me, like how he’d left his wife 20 years ago, but went back for the sake of his kids. How they had been sleeping in separate bedrooms (and hadn’t had sex) for the last 3 years. How he doesn’t visit his parents because they have “nothing to talk about.” And, shockingly, how as a child he suffered 4 years of sexual abuse at his Catholic boarding school, and to this day still hasn’t told anyone, except his wife. And how he subsequently went through years of drug and alcohol abuse as a teenager.


I didn’t know what to say. What do you say?

But you know what? I didn’t need to say anything. I didn’t need to solve his heartache. I had just been willing to listen, which was clearly something he had been longing for.

It reminded me of an amazing girl I met the other week at a networking event. Her name is Nathalia, and calls herself a ‘Fun-conventional Happiness Coach’ (what a brilliant title!). I remember her telling me that she would often approach people who were on their own, whether it be in a public space, on the train, or even in a nightclub. She would ask how they were doing, and then they would open up and share their darkest, innermost secrets.

I realised the same thing was happening to me. I guess it’s easy to share something with a complete stranger who you’re likely to never see again! In fact, this fellow told me he felt comfortable telling me these things because he didn’t know me.

After about an hour, I told him I had to go. I shook his hand and wished him all the best.  He thanked me for taking the time to speak with him. He didn’t try to hit on me, or ask for my number, which I truly respect.

So that was a slightly heavier Friday night conversation than usual!

But I’m glad it happened, because it reminded me of just how lucky I am to have been surrounded by loving and supportive people my entire life. My parents gave my sister and I the best upbringing anyone could ask for, and for that I feel incredibly blessed.

It also became clear to me how much people do appreciate you giving them your time. Sometimes when life gets shitty, all we need is someone to talk to; to connect with. We don’t need advice or solutions; just an open, nonjudgmental listening ear.

As Ralph G. Nichols says:

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.
The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”