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Start Talking To Strangers

“The bathroom is down the hall on the left.”

I said this so often during my nine days as a volunteer during South by Southwest, it was almost automatic when someone approached with a lost look on their face. South by Southwest (SXSW) is a giant conference/festival event that takes place over two weeks and is organized around four themes: education, film, interactive and music.

As a volunteer, each day I ran a room which is shorthand for crowd control at a room where sessions (presentations and panel discussions) were held. Managing lines and checking attendees into sessions meant that I had a lot of contact with a lot of people (many of whom needed the nearest restroom).

It’s really interesting what takes place when you bring thousands of people together – connections happen. In fact, making connections is one of the goals of the event. Page 2 of the SXSW guidebook gives these tips: Connect with as many people as possible. Explore connections and content that are outside your comfort zone. Put your laptop or smartphone down and get some face-to-face time with your neighbor.

"Being socially connected is our brain's lifelong passion," says Matthew Lieberman, professor of psychology at UCLA. "It's been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years."

Connection happens easily, but it requires action on the part of the people involved. One afternoon, as a few people were waiting to enter a session that had filled up, one man turned to the other two people in line and said “Hey, we are all waiting for the same session. Let’s talk.” One person engaged with him and they had a lively conversation. The other guy waved him off and stayed buried in his phone, silent and alone.

When you reach out to others and actively pursue connections, it is rewarding and remarkable what can transpire. Take my crew of volunteers – we worked the conference rooms on one floor of a hotel. There were a dozen of us and by no other means would we all have met – we were of different ages (the youngest was 16 and the oldest was middle-aged), from different parts of the city, of different backgrounds, with different lifestyles and different interests.

And yet, everyone made a point of meeting the others and quickly the group connected – greeting each other in the mornings like old friends, sharing stories and tips about the days’ events and backing each other up when someone needed assistance. I may never see them again but I sure am glad they were part of my life for those few days.

Connections arise from a willingness to be open and curious and interested in what is going on around you. Even shorter interactions – conversations lasting a few minutes – can be meaningful and memorable. Because we were together in the same place at the same time for a few minutes, I met some fascinating people:

  • A police officer who provides security for high-profile speakers at the convention center

  • A local cable news cameraman who recorded interviews with speakers for a daily SXSW highlight show

  • A DJ who wants to bring sound production into classrooms for a hands-on learning experience

  • A student who was inspired by speakers she heard and discovered what she wanted to major in at college

  • The creator of a robot named Dar-1, an insect-like machine designed for facial recognition

  • A pedicab driver whose family has lived in Texas since it was a republic and is studying automotive technology so he can learn how machines work for his ranch

Especially memorable are the people for whom simple acts of kindness and welcome – warm greetings, questions answered, friendly conversation and encouragement – were appreciated. One speaker came up to me as she was leaving the conference to say “Thank you, sister”.

Connection. All it takes is turning to someone and saying hello. Who can you connect with today?

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