Please, Talk to Strangers

An American Airlines frequent flyer encourages onboard pleasantries.

WORDS Dennis Barnes
February 2020
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Illustration by Rui Ricardo / Folio Art

It’s 5 p.m. in Shanghai and my family is sound asleep in St. Louis. As the plane heads for home, I can’t help but reflect on what brought me to China in the first place: a similar flight, a wristwatch and a life-changing conversation.

Nearly five years have passed since that serendipitous American Airlines flight from New York to St. Louis. I was seated next to a man just a few years older than me, and couldn’t help but notice his bold wristwatch. Was he a triathlete, an avid scuba diver or perhaps in the military?

As a father, I am well aware of the enduring mantra “Don’t talk to strangers.” But these days we seem to have taken this advice to a whole new level—especially on commercial flights. As soon as we stow our bags and buckle in, we put on our noise-canceling headphones and wait for the ding that tells us it’s safe to bury ourselves in our laptops for the duration of the flight.

I frequently buck this convention and chat with those around me. It’s nearly always an enjoyable experience— and this time, my willingness to talk to strangers literally changed my life.

Back to the wristwatch. After we were wheels up, I had to ask, “What kind of watch is that?” My fellow passenger described the many functions of his unique timepiece, which led to the predict-able niceties. Where do you live? Have any kids? What do you do for a living? It was that last question that would trigger a remarkable chain of events.

It turns out that the man seated next to me was an executive at a global company I had long admired, which happened to be headquartered a mere eight-minute drive from my home. It’s not too surprising our paths crossed: He was working in St. Louis, living in Nashville,  and responsible for the company’s business in the Asia-Pacific.  We were both frequent flyers.

Imagine how I must have felt in that moment. I’m a marketing executive who just stumbled upon a conversation with one of the leaders of a global Fortune 500 company. As we talked more about his business, I shared my years of marketing experience in a similar space. That progressed into conversations about data and analytics, digital transformation and other topics of the time. Opportunity was knocking. As we walked off the plane my new friend suggested that I stick around to meet a few of his colleagues. We exchanged cards and agreed to meet for breakfast sometime soon.

We met, just as we planned. Soon after, it was clear we should be doing business together. What started as simple small talk grew into a client relationship and, ultimately, an exciting new career trajectory. About 12 months after our initial, momentous flight, I was given the opportunity to join the company’s executive committee and run their global innovation subsidiary. The rest, as they say, is history—and it all started on a flight at 36,000 feet.

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