My husband and I spent last week in St. Louis preparing for, and then celebrating Rosh Hashanah with both of our sons, our daughter-in-law, and our amazing 15-month old grandson--who's favorite word is "ball".
He can tell you what sound a dog makes, show you how to wash your hair, and he loves to stack cardboard blocks and giant legos. He's a genius, of course!
Son #2 has lived in St. L for two years. Son #1 just moved there.
What a week it was! We shopped and cooked. We prayed and played. We talked and walked. We ate and ate and ate. We were hosts and we were guests. We schmoozed and sang. We laughed and I cried.
When you hear your son, the rabbi, deliver a Rosh Hashanah sermon that's funny, pithy, poignant--that cracks open your heart--and it includes something about Grandpa Jack, Grandpa Leo, cigars, fly-fishing, the wisdom of the Big Lebowski, and the importance of sharing our stories with each other--you better believe it's going to make you cry.
The message was about opening ourselves up to others. Sharing ourselves by sharing our stories. Sometimes being the storyteller. And sometimes being the listener. Sometimes the teacher. Sometimes the learner. Changing the roles and passing it on. It's how we connect. It's how we create community.
There Are No Strangers in St. Louie- Just People We Haven't Yet Met
And bam! There it was smack dab in St. Louie. Strangers talking to each other--and sharing what they know. From the stranger on the airport Metrolink who came to our rescue when she realized my husband & I had gotten on the train without tickets. What were we thinking?
The shoppers in Schnucks Market who overheard my daughter-in-law in search of seltzer and personally walked her over to the right aisle--and shared their seltzer stories.
The parents on the neighborhood playground who noticed we must be "new kids on the block" and schmoozed and shared stories while their kids played baseball at dusk.
And the newly-met family who walked four blocks over to my kids' apartment at 9:30 pm to invite us all to a Rosh Hashanah lunch. They knew the phone was turned off for the holiday.
And the just-met downstairs neighbor who is a professional dancer/college administrator/massage therapy student. If my kids are interested, she'd love to teach them ballroom dancing. I hope they accept her offer.
And that's only a small sampling of my six days of shared stories from strangers in St. Louis.
Howard White Learned It From His Mother. I Learned It From My Sons
So, what does Howard White have to do with all of all of this? You know me--I just love to connect the dots!
Two years ago, as I drove home from work I was struck by a simple story Howard White shared on NPR's This I Believe radio show. White believes in the "power of hello". His mom had taught him about it when he was a kid. My sons had taught it to me when I was all grown-up. It's a story shared, and meant to be passed on. It's now morphed into the "Power of Talking to Strangers". (first posted on October 20, 2008).
The Power of Hello - A Lesson from Howard White and His Mother
“I speak to everyone I see, no matter where I am. I've learned that speaking to people creates a pathway into their world, and it lets them come into mine.”-Howard White, Vice President of Nike's Jordan Brand & "This I Believe" essay author-
In my younger, shyer, self-conscious, more insecure days I admit to not always saying, "Hello" to people I knew, let alone strangers. Sometimes I was in too much of a hurry--or it felt too awkward to say hello to someone I didn't know well to start with, or hadn't seen in years. Or I didn't want to have to answer a lot of questions. It was a nasty habit. I even admit to occasionally pretending to be engrossed in a conversation with someone else, just so that I could avoid saying, "Hello" to someone else. Ick!!
But something switched in my brain over the years. Here's a case where my kids taught me how to behave. I noticed that as they got older they knew everyone--and they made an easy practice of talking to strangers. They had no problem traveling by themselves to foreign countries and they met people wherever they went.
I decided I wanted to be like them. And I decided to start with baby steps. (ignore the similarity to Bill Murray's "What about Bob?") First I would say hello by name to all the service people I meet up with everyday. Tina at the dry cleaners, Sid and Nancy at the gym, Marcy at the library, and Debby at the grocery store.
Then I decided it was time to introduce myself. I knew their names. They should know mine. I really started to enjoy life in the "up close and personal zone". And I made it a rule to never miss an opportunity to say, "Hello".
From there I progressed to striking up conversations with people I saw everyday in passing at work, in the locker room, or in my exercise classes, but hadn't actually spoken to before. All of sudden I knew about the lives, interests, and families of scores of people who I had never talked to before.
I was never a person "who made the first move." Turns out, most people are that way, and someone has to "make the first move," or relationships don't happen.
A couple of people who I had mistakenly thought were sourpusses were nothing of the sort. They were friendly interesting engaging people who just don't say "Hello" to people they don't know. They were just like I was.
Today, I can't imagine not greeting everyone with whom I make eye contact, at least with a smile. (well, within reason--I am sensible--after all) Grocery lines, movie lines, restroom lines, ferry boats--all are opportunities to learn something new.
Howard White says it a lot better than I can. His original essay was read on NPR on August 14, 2008.
The Power of 'Hello' by Howard White
When I was about 10 years old, I was walking down the street with my mother. She stopped to speak to Mr. Lee. I was busy trying to bulls-eye the "O" in the stop sign with a rock. I knew I could see Mr. Lee any old time around the neighborhood, so I didn't pay any attention to him.
After we passed Mr. Lee, my mother stopped me and said something that has stuck with me from that day until now. She said, "You let that be the last time you ever walk by somebody and not open up your mouth to speak, because even a dog can wag its tail when it passes you on the street."
That phrase sounds simple, but it's been a guidepost for me and the foundation of who I am.
When you write an essay like this, you look in the mirror and see who you are and what makes up your character. I realized mine was cemented that day when I was 10 years old. Even then, I started to see that when I spoke to someone, they spoke back. And that felt good.
It's not just something I believe in; it's become a way of life. I believe that every person deserves to feel someone acknowledge their presence, no matter how humble they may be or even how important.
At work, I always used to say hello to the founder of the company and ask him how our business was doing. But I was also speaking to the people in the cafe and the people that cleaned the buildings, and asked how their children were doing. I remembered after a few years of passing by the founder, I had the courage to ask him for a meeting. We had a great talk. At a certain point, I asked him how far he thought I could in go in his company. He said, "If you want to, you can get all the way to this seat."
I've become vice president, but that hasn't changed the way I approach people. I still follow my mother's advice. I speak to everyone I see, no matter where I am. I've learned that speaking to people creates a pathway into their world, and it lets them come into mine, too.
The day you speak to someone who has their head held down and when they lift it up and smile, you realize how powerful it is just to open your mouth and say, "Hello."
After I first shared Howard White's story two years ago, I received this email:
"I work on the Nike HQ campus, and see Mr. White frequently in the cafeteria. I had no idea who he was, but I can tell you he really does practice this. He is always on the alert to say hello! BTW he also is a very snazzy dresser. A vivid and bright personality all the way around!"