A month before the travel ban and protests, I started a job interviewing strangers at the airport. Not just any strangers — people waiting for international flights.
Since I find meeting new people both thrilling and lovely, this market research opportunity looked perfect. I said to myself, “Listen Linda, you’re pretty good at talking to strangers. Why don’t you do more of that?”
Sporting my best pantsuit and an official TSA badge, I set out on my journey. Aside from the survey data I needed to collect, I wanted to explore another intriguing question:
How many words does it take to turn a stranger into a friend?
Turns out, in a world where love is universal, not many.
Marriage Advice and Mexico
“How old are you?” a man says to me in his thick Spanish accent. He sits with his arms crossed over his plump belly, waiting for a flight to Mexico City. The woman with him looks up at me, her pink shirt as bright as her smile.
“Ugh…guess?!” I reply, thrown off by his haste in cutting right to the chase.
“Twenty-two? Are you married? Don’t get married,” he says to me.
And just like that, a fifty-something stranger becomes my life coach. His name is Jorge and he speaks from the heart.
“I have 4 kids, she has 6 kids. We had bad divorces over money. Don’t get married,” he says in a cautious tone.
As I stand in front of the couple wearing my boxy black suit, he looks me up and down.
“You are pretty skinny,” he decides, shaking his head in a mas-o-menos kind of way. “You can probably find boyfriends all over the world. Don’t get stuck in one place.”
I thank Jorge for his ominous advice and assure him I will not get stuck.
“Okay good, now come to Mexico City to visit us. We will teach you Spanish and you can work with us,” he says — our friendship now progressing quickly.
“Sure thing, I will fly to Mexico City and ask for Jorge,” I tell them.
We laugh together because we all know he is the only Jorge in Mexico City.
Diamonds and Doha
In the waiting area for a flight to Doha, Qatar, a sparkly diamond catches my eye. A young woman with tired eyes stares blankly into the distance with her head resting in her hand. Her shimmery ring contrasts so beautifully to the rich color of her skin.
As I approach her to fill out my survey, she waves me away.
“No, I am too tired,” she says quietly.
“That’s okay! Also, I want to tell you — you have a beautiful ring. I noticed it from afar!” I say.
Her eyes perk up.
“Oh, thank you! It would look better on your skin!” she tells me.
My heart breaks a little bit because I see how wonderful it looks on her. How do you tell a stranger that the color of their skin is perfect and beautiful and right? At a loss for words, I mutter, “No way, it looks so pretty on you. I almost want to take a picture of it!”
“Yes, please try it on!” she says, as she slips her wedding ring off her finger and hands it to me.
It’s remarkable how quickly one can go from a sleepy stranger to an outgoing girlfriend.
I soon realize that her skinny frame means her fingers are definitely skinnier than mine. If this gets stuck, Houston we will have a problem. Sensing my hesitation, she pushes her ring over my knuckle.
“There you go! Now, take a picture!! Please!”
Love and Lagos
“Psssst!” someone whispers at the gate waiting for a flight to Istanbul. Scanning the area, I notice an older woman summoning me with her hand. The deep colors of her clothing lay snug on her body — filling the whole chair like a cupcake risen over the tin. Her skin is a deep brown, her eyes are gray. As she starts to whisper again, I lean in and take the seat next to her.
“I need a wheelchair,” she whispers, looking around cautiously as if we are being watched.
“Okay, I will ask the flight attendants to get you one. Now, where are you from?” I ask, trying to place her accent.
“I am from Lagos,” she says quietly. Her name is Elizabeth. She is charming with a warm grandmother-like aura.
“My boyfriend loves Lagos, Nigeria. He did an Engineers Without Borders project there! We might go someday,” I tell her.
Her gray eyes widen with a smile as she wraps her arm around my back.
“I like you. Come to Nigeria, you will be my wife!”
People are People, No Matter How Far
The hours I spend in the airport give me a great deal of hope. At every gate, new people share their stories with me. The more I talk to strangers from all over the world, the more I see the universality of love. Though our conversations are short, the connection is real. We humans are far more alike than we are different.
If you are feeling stressed about the current state of the world and our country, I urge you to talk to strangers. Smile big and speak with kindness. You may be surprised by how few words it takes to turn people into friends.