The Wisdom of Strangers at Airports

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomAlthough the first thought that comes to people’s minds when they think of airports is annoyance (long lines, lengthy layovers, intrusive security checks, etc.), airports are incredible, magical places. We take it for granted that each day millions of people are transported to far-away places around the globe in hours (and if they are lucky, so will their luggage). If you have watched documentaries about the behind-the-scenes operations at an international airport you will know that the logistics (personnel, equipment, fuel, schedules, meals, connecting flights, luggage handling, maintenance, weather, customer behavior, etc.) will have your head spinning. In short, air travel is like an orchestra where every musician must play their part at exactly the right moment for the right period of time.

The other thing most people take for granted is what an amazing melting pot an airport is. There is no place in a city that has such a diverse group of individuals — people passing through from other parts of the country and the world. Each person — from a specific place, culture, and generation — has lived a life, presumably very different from yours — and has a unique, fascinating story to tell. That individuals sit side by side in the airport lounges or in airplane seats for hours at a time and not share these stories is a lost opportunity to gain perspective and new insights.

A few weeks ago, I sat in an airport in Phoenix, Arizona for a three hour layover to catch a connecting flight to the Bay Area. A sharply dressed woman sitting next to me asked me if I would watch her luggage while she purchased a charger for her phone. She spoke with an unmistakable Texan accent. Upon her return, we began chatting about what brought her to Phoenix and that led to a discussion about business, family, education, and the world. It was a wonderful discussion that helped pass the time, but more importantly, it led to many wonderful insights and perspectives drawn from her life and her journey. One of the most notable thoughts was this: “I wish I could step into a time machine and travel back in time, so that I could give my kids and grandkids the same world I grew up in.” That idea resonated deeply with me. Over the years, I have spoken to so many people who grew up in the 50s and 60s who share this sentiment but have never expressed is so vividly and so succinctly. This was her gift to me.

Earlier in the day, I had taken a flight from Columbus to Phoenix. During the boarding process, a young woman in her early twenties asked if she could sit in the window seat. I noticed she was wearing an Ohio State University sweatshirt. A fascinating, engaging conversation that lasted the entire flight — 3.5 hours — began with a simple question: “Are you currently a student at Ohio State?” I learned that she had graduated a few years ago, worked in the finance industry, and was traveling to visit a college friend in Phoenix. Over the next few hours, our conversation ranged from business, leadership, education, family, family values, documentaries on psychological issues (trust, truth, compliance, obedience, etc.), psychological research, communication, relationships, philanthropy, work ethic, hobbies, self knowledge and self reflection. She was one of ten children, born to parents who lived in one of the toughest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Dayton, Ohio. Her salvation came in the form of the discipline, wisdom, kindness, generosity, and deep faith from a matriarchal household. The biggest influence on her was her mother and grandmother who taught her to listen and to discern the difference between people who spoke from the heart (where their words were aligned with their body language and actions) and those who spoke to manipulate or lie (where their words were discordant with their body language). “Those two lessons have served me well throughout my life — that, and my faith,” she explained. Her parents emphasized the importance of faith, education, and a good work ethic. Out of ten siblings, eight attended and graduated from college. The conversation was so genuine, so synergistic — one topic segueing seamlessly from one topic to another — that the hours melted away. At the end of the conversation, she confessed, “I am an introvert, and I generally wouldn’t talk to a stranger. Even with my friends, I tend to be a listener. But this conversation is one of the deepest, broad-ranging, fascinating conversations I have ever had.” We both were grateful for this wonderful exchange of ideas. The only time she reached for her phone was to write down the title of a book or documentary that she didn’t know about. Although this young woman, so early in her life journey and full of opportunities, will likely forget me, I don’t think she will forget the magic of that thoughtful, engaging conversation. When I challenged her to strike up a conversation with a stranger on her flight back home, she smiled and replied, “I will definitely try.” We parted ways when we deplaned and entered the busy airport terminal; I watched as she disappeared into a throng of travelers scurrying along the seemingly infinite concourse, appreciative of her generous gifts: the wisdom gained from her life and the inspiration of her incredible mother and grandmother.

So the next time you are in an airport, manage to get over your annoyance, smile at the person sitting next to you, and strike up a conversation that focuses on your commonalities, not your differences… and watch the magic of communication emerge over time.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Little Books, Big Ideas: On Things That Really Matter
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks
The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel