Conversations matter

Being able to hold a conversation with someone is a lost art, according to my seat mate on the flight home from St. John’s, Newfoundland. We had started chatting when Porter’s free drink service (woohoo!) began, and didn’t stop until we landed in Halifax. The elderly gentleman seated next to me with his huge wispy white beard had been on the rock for a bit of vacation, until it came time to leave his wife behind to cook for the men and women actively working to rebuild parts of the island devastated by last year’s hurricane.

I learned that they frequently travelled to areas that had been hit by disasters and worked with Mennonite organizations to help rebuild. We talked about the birth of the modern internet, and how he had brought the concept of a freenet to his town in northern Ontario, and had taught himself a bit of HTML back in the 90s, just to see how it worked. Despite his age, he had lots of questions for me about the state of social media and web development. He knew more than some designers I know and certainly far more than I expected from someone of his, uh, vintage.

I heard about how he brewed his own beer and wine from ingredients he grew in his garden. I’ve made my own wine in the past, so I had a few thoughts and questions for him about that, and as a lover of craft beer, it’s always nice to chat with others who share this passion. He told me that he had grown enough of his own hops last summer to last him for years, as you don’t need much for the batches he brews. On one of his recent batches, he had over-hopped an IPA and no one wanted a second pint due to the bitterness.

More than anything, I was struck by how much I had in common with this gentleman, and how rich his past has been. I think the biggest part of this is that I really didn’t expect to have anything in common with him when I initially sat down. I haven’t really been able to stop thinking about my conversation with Mr Potter (middle name Harold, apparently he’s very much enjoyed being known as Harry Potter for the last several years).

We talk a lot at Kula about social objects and their power to bring people together and give them something to talk about. I’m starting to think though that the conversation itself is as much a social object as the technology, beer, games and experiences we normally discuss.

The people I’ve spoken with since about my experience with my seat mate have declared that they rarely get into conversations with strangers on flights beyond the traditional exchanging of pleasantries. I wonder why this is? It would seem to me that an airplane with it’s cramped quarters is the perfect conversation starter.

What’s the best conversation you’ve ever had with a stranger?

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