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Don’t tell mom, but I talk with strangers

By on June 22, 2020 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Jim Brown

By Jim Brown, M.D.

Most people are not very comfortable starting a conversation with strangers, but there are many benefits in speaking with others and hearing their voices. 

It helps us realize that they too have a life of thoughts, feelings and experiences much like we do. 

Many of us were told by our parents, especially our mothers, “don’t talk with strangers.” This is pretty good advice to young children, but I think it suggests to them that strangers are bad people whom we cannot trust. 

It is true there are mean and dangerous people out there, and parents are only trying to protect their children. 

Hopefully, in adulthood we have learned to differentiate people with good intentions from those with not so good intentions. 

As adults, despite learning to tell good from not so well intentioned people, we are still influenced by our well meaning parental advice from our childhood. 

For some, the thought of approaching a stranger and initiating a conversation makes them nervous. 

I am not suggesting that we walk up to a total stranger and ask them if they would like to talk. However, we are often in groups of people, at a meeting or in church, when someone is an obvious stranger to us. 

In those circumstances, if we have the courage to walk up to them and introduce ourselves, they are often relieved and happy to talk with us. Who knows, we might find we have things in common and that might lead us into a strong friendship. 

In my second year of medical school, we started taking medical histories from hospitalized patients and doing rudimentary physical exams as well. We then presented our findings to the attending physician for a critique. 

Taking a medical history includes current symptoms and concerns, when they started, how they have affected them, their past medical history and their family’s medical history. 

I found taking histories enjoyable, informative and crucial. I found out how much I enjoyed talking with these “strangers” who no long were strangers but were my patients and friends. 

I think because of these experiences, I ended up taking a residency in internal medicine and later gastroenterology rather than a specialty with little patient contact. To this day I enjoy talking with strangers, some of whom are now friends. 

I remember years ago when I was working at the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center, a few of us went to a national meeting of leaders of medical groups around the country.

I’ll never forget my good friend, Dr. Pres Bratrude, from Omak, who was a board member and who accompanied me to these meetings. 

Pres was a very gregarious person and naturally outgoing politician. The first night, about 50 of us were out on the lawn socializing. I didn’t know any of these people nor did Pres. After we shared a glass of wine, Pres said, ”I am going to have to leave you now. I need to go and work the crowd.” 

It didn’t take him long before he made several new friends that evening. I was impressed as to how easy it was for him.

In 2012 my wife and I decided to visit Australia for a month. Since we didn’t know anything about that country, I found an Australian trip planner who planned our entire itinerary, including two flights within Australia, our car rentals, lodging, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef and many other exciting adventures we would not have known about or experienced without his guidance. 

We prepaid for everything except our meals. It was the trip of a lifetime. 

The first day we flew one hour from Melbourne to Launceston, Tasmania where a rental car was waiting for us. We drove about one hour to the tiny town of Evandale, best known for its Penny-Farthing Annual Bike Race. A penny farthing bike has one huge front wheel and a tiny rear wheel. 

We settled into our B and B that night in “The Stables,” and, yes, each unit was a former stable and quite cozy. 

This town was so small it had no restaurant, but it had a noisy pub and across the street from the pub was a small mini-grocery that also made pizza. 

We ordered a pizza, which we planned to eat at one of three tables they had on their sidewalk. I went over to the pub and bought a bottle of wine. 

As we started to eat, a man came out of the store with a pizza in hand, stopped at our table, introduced himself and asked us where we were from. Then he left. A few minutes later he came back and said, “Why don’t you bring your pizza and wine and come to our place?”

We accepted the invitation. He rented this place, called “Grandmother’s Cottage” every year for a month. 

We spent about three hours with him and his wife and had a very enjoyable introduction to Tasmania. 

His name was Ian, and he was an economics professor at Queensland University on the mainland. He wanted to show me his new Sony Cybershot camera that he was enjoying. 

I was so impressed by that camera that Lynn bought me one for my birthday. Later Ian and I started regularly sharing photos of our own areas. 

Since then, we have been emailing each other at least weekly. He has been particularly interested in our current political scene. 

Even though we only met one evening, I feel like he is now a very good friend. I would love to visit him some day or have him visit here, but at our ages now that seems unlikely. Nevertheless, our friendship is permanent. 

When talking with strangers, I always look for some kind of connection which might be where we grew up, activities we like, teams we follow, golf, hiking, pickleball, fishing, etc. 

Once you find a connection, it is easier to develop that into a friendship, and who knows, it might become lifelong. 

Obviously, it is easier to make connections with people who share similar experiences that you understand, for example teachers with teachers, doctors with doctors. 

From a health standpoint, we know that having friends is good medicine for physical and mental health.

 Jim Brown, M.D., is a retired gastroenterologist who has practiced for 38 years in the Wenatchee area. He is a former CEO of the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center.

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