All it takes to form a connection is one common interest, but the idea of trying to find that common interest sends us into a panic.  We fear coming off as weird or worse we might invoke the dreaded awkward silence!  I want to share a story about a conversation where I struggled to find a connection when a young Japanese man that approached me in my local coffee shop.

I enjoy writing my coaching material at a local coffee shop downtown.  I know the staff and the owner, the music is good, and the decoration of the shop is wonderfully unique.  A little over a year ago, a tour group of college age Japanese students came in.  I’m not sure what draw Salem Oregon has, but it’s surprisingly common around here.

As I was making notes sitting at the coffee bar when a young man asked if he could take the stool next to me.  I welcomed him and it was obvious he wanted to try to strike up a conversation with a local and I was happy to oblige.  His English was a little rough, but much better than my German ever was on my best day.  This was my challenge: provide a meaningful exchange with someone visiting from another country who was not fluent in English. Challenge accepted.

I thought, let’s start with something easy.  Let’s ask about what sites he’s seen around town.

“What sites have you been to around here?”

“Sites?”

Welp, that’s snag number one… crap. Recover! Quickly! Ask about the capital!

“Have you been to see the capital?”

“Capital?”

“Uh, the really tall building with the gold guy on top?”

“Oh! Yes, yes! …”

Alright, trying to ask about his trip is a bust… But he’s still here, he’s still interested in having a conversation. Oh! Let’s ask about home!

“So where are you from?”

He happily answers and it dawns on me I’ve just had my second snag.  I barely have even a vague idea where Tokyo is in Japan, what hope do I have of even comprehending where his home is?

But he’s still sitting there, body turned towards me, he’s still invested in having a conversation, so let’s go for broke and try my original thought.  When he first sat down the thing that came to mind was to bring up anime, but I felt like that was too cliché and that it would be rude to just assume he liked anime, but nothing else has worked so far, so…

“Do you like anime?”

“Anime?!” His eyes go wide and his jaw drops in disbelief.  There! We have connection!

“Yeah, Dragonball Z, Gundam, Yu-Yu Hakusho?” I’m establishing my credibility for bringing up the topic.

“Yes! Yes!”

So we launch into a conversation about our favorite Gundam series.  He tells me about how he’s seen the 1:1 scale Gundam statue in Japan and I tell him how jealous I am.  He asks me if I know Naruto and Bleach and I say yes.  I’m very proud to be able to say an anime didn’t come up that I wasn’t familiar with.

When his group wraps up in the shop and he has to leave he asks to take a photo with me and I agree.  We lean in for a selfie and I’m still kicking myself to this day for not pulling out my phone and doing the same.  We part ways and he leaves with a big smile on his face.

Let me tell you there was plenty of awkward silence when that conversation started out, but this young man was miles from home in a strange country where he wasn’t fluent in the language and yet he was brave enough to sit down with a local and try to have a conversation with them.  The idea of being in his shoes is daunting, to say the least.  That’s why I had to make the effort to connect with him.

I’m proud to think that he left having experienced a connected conversation with a local on his trip.  I also like to think it was a nice reminder of home as well and showed him that even in a different country there are people that know and value a part of his home.

I hold that experience close to my heart and I value the feeling that I had during that exchange.  He was obviously there hoping to have a conversation and the feeling I had during this experience was:

“I have to try.  I have to do this because he’s asking to have an experience on his journey.  I have to do this because he’s already done the hard part.  My part in this conversation is child’s play compared to his bravery.”

I think his efforts were rewarded.  I didn’t give up at the first awkward silence, I couldn’t.  I couldn’t give up when he was trying so hard, and I’m so happy that I put in the effort.  I’m hoping that was one of the highlights of his trip, that he sat down with a local and had a real conversation as a result of his efforts.  I hope he does it again and has another wonderful conversation.  I believe it made his trip valuable to him.  I know it was valuable to me.

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