Making conversation: Experiencing people in a world of screens and familiarity

Elevator to the coffee shop: three people staring at their phones. Lining up at Starbucks: two staring at their phones. In my seat as I type: two on the phone, one on phone mid-conversation. 

Per my weekly report over the past month, I've been on Instagram 37 minutes per day with an average screen time of 3 hours and about 73 pick-ups of my phone. 

I probably won't remember seeing the Instagram post about a friend's engagement to his girlfriend or the Facebook post about a friend's photos from her trip to Europe. These will all be things of the past that won't play any material role in my life and development. It's quite common for us to miss what actually happens around us because we are so preoccupied with our phones. There are plenty of blogs discussing the social negatives of staring at our phones all the time, the curation of an environment increasing ADHD diagnosis, and the cowardice of "internet warriors" so I won't bore you with another post of that nature. 

I was reflecting.

Reflecting on my past trips and reminiscing about the various coffee shops I have ventured to. Like many tourists, I took hundreds of photos of landmark monuments within each city and oddly enough, much of it doesn't stick in my memory. My most memorable aspects of travel are either of nature or people. 

Picture taken in 2017 at First Mountain in Grindelwald, Switzerland

Picture taken in 2017 at First Mountain in Grindelwald, Switzerland

I think nature is quite obvious. Especially if you live in a concrete jungle like I do. 

What surprised me was my recollection of the people; for some, I can remember the details of their faces, and others just the interaction or their demeanor. 

Some memories that are at the top of my mind are:

  • Zurich: Sitting in Cafe Schwarzenbach for our breakfast coffee and croissant. It was a small coffee shop. There, I saw two fathers, each with his own child in the booth next to us. I remember commenting to my girlfriend that I'd like to do that with my "bros" on a future Sunday too.

  • Tokyo: We went into a Kroc store to ask if there were any pork cutlet restaurants nearby. No particular reason on why we selected a Kroc store, I just let my hunger drive me. The sales rep searches online and prints out a map to help direct us after realizing my Japanese was only good for asking for directions but not receiving it. 

  • Kyoto: I ask a cleaning staff for directions to the Ramen Street. He is not sure either so he drops his broom and brings me to his colleagues to get directions and then proceeds to guide me for 10 minutes to an elevator that will take me there and disappears back the way we came to continue his job. 

  • Budapest: A kind stranger noticed my puzzled face staring at all the Hungarian water brands and referred me to the brand he recommended most. He then explained that all pink caps were still water and blue caps were carbonated. 

Whether it's an emotional afterthought and/or kindness from a stranger, it's not something I would get from taking a selfie at a landmark to post on Instagram. It's from taking the time to interact with another human being or even through simply observing them.

Turns out, this is not just applicable when traveling. It applies even when I look back on my previous work experiences in assessing what I truly "miss". 

Whether it's from my accounting or consulting days, all I remember are the moments in the trenches together doing the worst projects. The projects and what I learned from them are in fact not the happy moments. Some are not even worth keeping in my memory vault. The most valuable memories are not just inclusive of my direct coworkers but also the interactions I had with other people, like specific interviews I had with CEOs when I was an investor. If by some stroke of luck you are reading this, Mr. Christian Sagild of Topdanmark, I really enjoyed our conversation. 

People leave jobs due to poor coworkers and culture or because of the job despite the great people. Most of the time, what they will remember are the people they spent their time with. Not so much the work. What is also the case is that we won't remember the work we choose to do instead of spending with people we love. Try to look back 3 or 5 years. I bet you have more detailed memories of the people rather than any kind of work.

I recently listened to an interview of Phil Keoghan, the host of the Amazing Race, on the Tim Ferriss Show. Phil spoke about how he'd drop everything he was doing whenever his daughter asked to play with him. Even if he had a strict deadline. He'd make up for that lost time by working until 3 in the morning etc... But to him the decision was clear. He would remember playing with his daughter when she was 5,7 and 10. He would not remember any of the deadlines he'd have met.

Coffee shop chit chats.

Sometimes a memorable experience can occur close to home when you least expect it. Like on a Wednesday morning at a coffee shop in downtown Toronto. 

A couple beside me strike up a conversation as I sit down with my coffee and muffin. The husband, I assume, asks me, "Did you get the muffin for me."

I respond, "why yes of course. I saw that croissant you ate and figured you'd like a muffin too."

We laugh. 

The wife offers to share her green juice with me. I decline but she insists, saying I look like I'd like it. To stroke my ego, I assume it's because I look fit, so I accept it after being woo'd by the compliment.

Playing a bit of Sherlock Holmes, I see a suitcase, catch their British accent and see a well-dressed couple sitting casually in a coffee shop in the late morning. I ask if they're here on vacation. 

Indeed they are. 

They're visiting their daughter in NY from London and Toronto is just a pit stop. Through our conversation, I revealed I had lived in Hong Kong when I was younger. Turns out the husband had worked in Hong Kong too. We then discuss Hong Kong pre and post-British influences from when I lived there (1997) to how it has changed since my recent visit in 2016. We then traversed into history and China's 3000-year reign as an economic superpower, the failed experiment called "communism", the recency bias of Western countries to think they had always been a major power and debate about our thesis for a 50-year forecast for the state of Hong Kong and the Asian economy. I must admit I did not expect an elderly Caucasian couple to have such a holistic view of the Asian economy and the humility to share their views, to quote the wife: "Western arrogance was blinding society from growing further." 

Then we discussed Brexit and its economic implications, giving me a snippet of the local perspective. Turns out the wife had a career in hedge funds before so we chatted briefly about long-term equity investing. We then moved the conversation to infrastructure in metropolitan cities; namely differences in Toronto and New York. We continued to straddle the conversation of the rise of Eurasia, the historical significance of the two world wars in recent economic development, and the philosophy of how destruction and decimation is not entirely a disadvantage to a society.

This was about a 15-minute conversation. Time had flown by and we traded phone numbers as they headed for the airport in their Uber. I'd like to think they wanted to trade phone numbers because the conversation was enjoyable to them. It was for me. I must thank the brave husband for leading the conversation with a joke. The ball was in my court and I could have responded with a simple "no", or a shy chuckle and ended the conversation there. But I genuinely wanted to return a joke back at him. It's something I've been trying to embrace more. 

Start small

Now I'm not saying you shouldn't use Google Maps when you're in a foreign country. I'm not saying you should stay in jobs you hate just because you enjoy the people there. Nor am I saying you should strike up random conversations at a coffee shop. My first random coffee shop conversation in Calgary resulted in the guy trying to recruit me to join his pyramid scheme. But it's in such interactions with people that I learn and feel that I truly experience a part of the world. 

I can understand why people don't do it too. It's scary. You don't know the person and it's just not familiar for you. It's completely out of your comfort zone. It plays against the basic human disposition to say in safety. 

But I would like to make a case for the beauty in approaching the unfamiliar. Making the effort to put down your "metal" guard and choose to observe, initiate and engage in expanding your own experience base of social interaction. I don't "Twitter" but I've heard that folks have "interactions" through such mediums and a case can be made for "memorable" experiences via social media. 

Maybe it's because every personality test says I'm an extrovert. That may be accurate but I'd like to think that despite the advancement of technology, something that cannot fundamentally change is our desire to be with each other and interact. 

It can be as small as that elevator talk. Too often it is the case that conversations, if any, just go straight to something trivial like the weather. If someone asked me "how are you?" I used to respond with "I'm good, you?" But hell, it's not always "good". Sometimes it's fantastic, or sometimes I'm just exhausted because of the goddamn humidity. Now, I try to be cognizant to only say "good" when I mean it. Just trying to actually mean what I say. I don't know if that person cares to know that but at the least I'm being honest and who knows, maybe it would lead to another joyous and eventful conversation. I don't do this all of the time but now I at least know some of my apartment neighbours. I also know four of the security guards in my building so we are slowly making progress. 

I know it's not easy. At least, I don't feel it is. But I think consciously thinking about it and having a desire to make a change is important. Start small. Make conversation. Make that small leap. It'll most likely end up producing more happier memories than not. Experience more to make more memories.