“Never talk to strangers.” We all heard that from our mothers. Then we probably cautioned our own children to do the same. For many of us, it morphed into a lifelong habit. Sadly, our fear of Stranger Danger is keeping us from experiencing the world in an authentic way.
In her book, When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You, Kio Stark tells how even the briefest encounters can be valuable for all involved. She should know–she’s spent her career studying interactions.
If you prefer, you can watch Stark’s TED talk on why she’s obsessed with talking to strangers. It’s only twelve minutes long and worth your time.
“When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life–and theirs,” she says. With so many people lacking a sense of connection and intimacy, even a brief look or conversation can fill the void.
Stark calls this “street intimacy” and it’s everywhere: a nod, a “Good morning,” a “Have a good day.” These exchanges are spontaneous and honest. They can make us feel happy and human. Sometimes they become memorable. Why? Not because of the words, which have little value. But because the interactions have social meaning. They show we are acknowledging the other person.
Talk to strangers when you travel
The world is full of strangers, probably never more obvious than when we travel. Of course, we go places because we want to see new cultures, and that includes the people. Without speaking the language, we can still communicate.
But there are rules.
Start by observing. The rules of interaction in a culture aren’t written, but rather, agreed upon. Watch for patterns of public behavior. What happens at different times of the day? Between men and women? Do people share eye contact? Do they avoid talking to others? Do the locals seem curious about visitors? After awhile, you can identify what is “normal,” and what isn’t.
To tell if someone is open to conversation, start with their gaze. As you approach, they will look at you for a few seconds, instead of averting their gaze. It’s not a stare, but a look of open interest. And a message: “I’m friendly.”
You both read each other. You look at each other’s gender, age, clothing, appearance, and expression. You take in movement and how the other is holding their body. Determine if they’re in a hurry or seem stressed. If all seems appropriate for the time of day, you may decide to smile, wave, or say a few words. All this happens unconsciously and within a nano-second.
How to start a conversation
These methods may not result in a full-blown conversation, but generally, social rules dictate that you should get at least some kind of response:
- Ask a question.
- Give a compliment.
- Make a comment about the shared space.
- Talk first to the baby or pet.
- Offer assistance.
Ending the interaction
We’ve all been there, trying to disentangle ourselves from a jabber box. Maybe on a plane, after you’ve said hello to your seat mate and are ready to settle in for the flight. But they don’t pick up on all the cues you’re hurling at them…and keep talking. Don’t be that person, please.
These are some ways to close a conversation. Be aware when you’re on the receiving end!
- Use your body to back away from the space between you.
- Reduce and then stop eye contact.
- Gather belongings, put on a jacket, check your phone.
- Ask where the restroom is.
- Say, “It was nice talking to you.”
Practice makes perfect
Stark offers some exercises to help those of us who are timid, shy, or scared about this whole talk to strangers thing. She calls them “expeditions.”
- People Watch: Take an hour and go to a place where you don’t know anyone. Bring something to write with…and observe. Describe the setting and the kinds of people that are there. How can you tell if they’re rich or homeless? How are they moving? What do their bodies and facial expressions tell you?
- Say Hello: This is just like it sounds. Go for a slow walk in a public place, like a park. Greet every person you pass, without worrying if they respond or not. Shake it up by offering short compliments: “Cute dog.” “I like your scarf.” Notice how people respond. Do they seem startled? Do they smile? Do they say anything?
- Get Lost: A more advanced exercise, approach people and ask for directions. No smartphone allowed. You can even bring paper and pen to ask them to draw a simple map. Feeling bold? Ask for their phone number in case you need more help. Then call it later, to thank them for their help.
The point is to meet people and to make human connections, no matter where you go. There are good people all over the world and your life will be richer for meeting them. You will also be surprised as biases and preconceptions fall away, just by telling someone that you like their shoes.
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