I have a new hobby: playing chess. I used to play years ago, and after a break of decades I am playing again. I play with my 13-year-old son every day. He normally wins, but at least I can make him work hard to win. I have also started playing online chess, mainly with my brother in England.
The chess app enables you to play with anyone else in the world who has the app at any time. All you can see about the player is their user name, which is often something quite cryptic, and the flag of the country where they live. I have played players from India, the USA, the UAE, Italy, Algeria and numerous countries of which I do not recognise the flag. For twenty minutes I am united with a complete stranger, sharing an exciting moment, sharing a love of possibly the oldest game in the world. My opponent might be a teenager, a woman, a 100-year-old, an immigrant – I have no idea. We can exchange messages if we want, but I have not tried that.
If I had met this person in some other situation, mine and their identity would have played a major role in our interaction. Sport, politics, religion, all sorts of topics concerning the country they are from would have come to mind. Or potential questions about their work or studies or lifestyle, depending on their age.
One of the beauties of online chess (and no doubt other online hobbies) is that you forget about all these things and concentrate on the thing you have in common: the hobby, which is of course a source of pleasure for both. It does not matter who the other person is, what their values are, their situation in life. It is enough to know that you have something in common, and that something is a positive thing.
I am trying to use this way of thinking when I meet people in the flesh, but it isn’t always easy. Appearance, age, language, name, gender – all affect the interaction. Still, when I manage to ignore these details and concentrate on a topic that unites us, the interaction always works. I recommend it when talking to a stranger, especially somebody of foreign origin. Don’t talk about each other, but instead about things that unite you – the town you both live in, transport and traffic, the food and drink in the cafe, the music playing on the radio, even the weather (!). A foreigner does not want to always have to introduce themselves, explain why they are in Finland and talk about how difficult the Finnish language is. These topics can come later, if desired. Then it might surprise you to know that you shared a pleasant moment with somebody whose outlook on life is radically different from your own.