In promoting The Solar Patriot, I’ve been talking to a lot of strangers recently. Of course, I’ve met a lot of new people while giving book talks.
That’s how it started. But then, it got weird. And great. Let me explain.
I began giving book talks in my George Washington outfit, just like you’ve seen in a painting from the Revolutionary War or on the TV series Turn. My wife Lindsay comes along dressed in her Martha Washington dress. People seem to like it.
Indeed, we had gotten such a good response to our Revolutionary War-era outfits at book talks that we’ve gone on to wearing the clothes in other places.
Of course we wear the outfits to historic sites around our uber-historic state of Virginia, from Colonial Williamsburg to Monticello to Mt. Vernon. But we’ve also decided to have a little fun and dress up 18th-century style at wineries, breweries, restaurants and of course, while walking on the street or in the park.
It definitely gets attention. Some people are bemused or confused. But most seem interested and intrigued. It leads to lots of short, friendly encounters with strangers. They ask us “Who are you?” Sometimes we answer in character, as George and Martha or just generic colonial people. Or sometimes we answer as Erik and Lindsay, explaining that wearing the outfits around the place is a performance art project with its own website that we call Everyday Reenactors.
We like these little discussions. What especially impresses us is the variety of people who approach us. It’s not just older white people, as you might think, because they tend to be most interested in American history. It’s also a pretty good range of other types of people too.
Five-year olds ask if I’m a pirate and say that Lindsay looks like a princess.
African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos of all ages seem to like to pose for pictures with us as much as white people do.
And older people, who do seem more comfortable talking about history, often engage us in conversations about George and Martha or other founding figures.
Sometimes people even want to argue about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves. Or Robert E. Lee and the Civil War.
Everybody seems to ask about the outfits. Are they hot? Where did you get them and how much did they cost? And our favorite, what about the underwear? We don’t mind that one, and are happy to explain about a woman’s 18th century stay or a man’s long linen shirt.
Making Strangers into Fellow Americans
Always, even when discussions become a little heated — as happened one evening on the streets of downtown Philadelphia when a young African-American woman started a discussion with us about George Washington owning slaves — we feel better for talking to strangers. Neither of us is especially outgoing in public normally, so we’re grateful to the outfits for helping us connect with people so easily.
We know that many of the people we connect with in public might not agree with most of our politics. They might be Trump voters or Fox News viewers. I especially like making those connections, because they help me get out of putting people in categories and see people instead as people, as citizens, as fellow Americans.
In her TED talk “Why You Should Talk to Strangers,” author Kio Stark comments on this phenomenon. Getting over your fear of talking to strangers is liberating. It helps you relax into your gut feeling and intuition:
There are two huge benefits to using our senses instead of our fears. The first one is that it liberates us. When you think about it, using perception instead of categories is much easier said than done. Categories are something our brains use. When it comes to people, it’s sort of a shortcut for learning about them. We see male, female, young, old, lack, brown, white, stranger, friend, and we use the information in that box. It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s a road to bias. And it means we’re not thinking about people as individuals.
This is what I think could save America now. Today, it’s a truism in the media that our nation is polarized, that Americans are more angry at each other for their politics than anytime since the Vietnam War — or even since before the Civil War.
If I accept that we are polarized as a nation, I don’t fear that the country will break out into a war of bullets and bayonets anytime soon. But I do fear that we’ll just get further apart on how we feel about Trump or abortion or immigration or my big issue, energy and climate change.
But talking to strangers gives me hope. It makes me feel that perhaps we’re not really that polarized as a nation. That maybe Americans still agree on more than the media seems to give us credit for.
At least people we’ve met still seem to like George and Martha outfits. They also seem generally positive on the story of the American Revolution as well. And mostly willing to talk about its dark sides of slavery and the exclusion of women, African-Americans, Indians and even poor white people from the founders’ original understanding of “We the People.”
Maybe talking to strangers could save America? As Stark explains, it might just make you happier.
“When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life and theirs. You’re making unexpected connections. If you don’t talk to strangers, you’re missing out on all of that. “
As she also explains, talking to strangers could be a start towards wider understanding and sympathy of different types of people for each other.
We spend a lot of time teaching our children about strangers. What would happen if we spent more time teaching ourselves? We could reject all the ideas that make us so suspicious of each other. We could make a space for change.
A space for change. Isn’t that what America has been about at its best, from colonial times? Isn’t that space what we’ll need to solve the big problems that threaten our future, from climate change on down?
Perhaps talking to strangers as fellow citizens might be one of the best tools for a modern-day American patriot. And you don’t need to be wearing a George or Martha outfit to connect with strangers.
Though clothing can help anyone to connect with a stranger. Stark, for example, recommends complimenting a stranger’s “awesome” shoes. It’s a nonthreatening way to open a conversation, and almost everyone has a story to tell about their footwear.