Earlier this week, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison delivered a lecture at Harvard University called "Being and Becoming the Stranger."
One of the many highlights of her provocative talk was a story she told about approaching a stranger she saw fishing near her home. When Morrison was done telling the tale--in which she ultimately felt betrayed by the stranger--she asked: "Why would we want to close the distance, when we can close the gate?"
It's a question that pertains to networking scenarios, too. We've all been there. You have a promising, first encounter with a certain someone. You feel as if a bond has been forged. You are all but sure it's the start of a superb friendship and/or business relationship. But then you never see that person again. And you ask yourself, not for the first time: What's the point of initiating any encounter with a stranger, when it's so, so easy to get burned? Or, as Morrison put it: Why bother to close the distance with a stranger, when you can close the gate?
Before I share Morrison's answers, let me share an abbreviated summary of her story. Several years ago, Morrison met a stranger--a woman--who was fishing near her property. They had a wonderful, 15-minute conversation about fish recipes, weather, and children. The woman told Morrison that she came to that spot to fish every week--sometimes many days in a row.
They parted with an understanding that they'd talk again, at that very spot, very soon. Morrison imagined more conversations. She imagined inviting her into her house for coffee, stories, and laughter. In short, Morrison imagined a friendship: "Casual, effortless, delightful," she said.
But the woman never came back. Morrison kept looking. She asked local friends and neighbors. No one had heard of her or seen her. Morrison felt cheated and puzzled. She wondered if she'd dreamed the whole thing. Morrison even admitted to the audience that she is still trying to understand "the intensity of [my] chagrin."
What did Morrison learn from this encounter--and her emotional response? Mainly, to quote the famous song, that it was just her imagination, running away with her. And more than that. Morrison recognized that she'd turned the intriguing stranger--after one encounter--into something of a mental possession: "I appropriated her," she said. "I owned her. Or I wanted to. And I suspect she glimpsed it."
I asked networking expert Robbie Samuels how often this happens in business settings. His answer: quite often. "You have to be open to all of the possibilities of an encounter, as opposed to wanting something particular from the exchange," he says.
Herein lies the first lesson. Instead of trying to viewing the encounter through the stranger's eyes, Morrison used her own. To be human is to make this mistake, especially when the stranger touches the right wire in your heart. In Morrison's case, the hope for a long-sought female camaraderie made her all too zealous to process the encounter through her own emotions--not necessarily those of the stranger.
Which brings us back to Morrison's ultimate questions: Why would you attempt to meet a stranger when it's easier to simply estrange another? Why, indeed, would we close the distance, when we can close the gate?
The answer lies deep in our essential humanity. Though connecting with others isn't easy--and comes with emotional risks--the desire to do so is part of remaining human. After processing her hurt, Morrison came to realize this. Her high hopes stemmed from her own long-held desire for a true connection. And the stranger in her midst was likely harboring her own hopes--for one thing or another.
"It took some time for me to understand my unreasonable claims on that fishing woman," she said. "To understand that I was longing for--and missing--some aspect of myself. And that there are no strangers. They are all versions of ourselves."