Talking to Strangers

This is why I don’t like to talk to strangers:

  1. In childhood I was taught (conclusively) that strangers — all strangers, but especially friendly strangers — are out to abduct me.
  2. Since I am not seeking to abduct anyone, why would I want to be friendly? If I talk to strangers, they may get the wrong idea about me.
  3. Since I clearly lack the relational capacity to foster the depth of relationship I desire with the friends that I already have, why would I want more friends? Talking to strangers might lead to more friendships, and who has time for that? I only have so much “relational energy” to go around, ya know?
  4. I am an important, busy person, and it is imperative that I use my time wisely. I really should be reading, texting, listening to a podcast, or otherwise “investing” this time in some inanimate, hand-held device (electronic or otherwise).
  5. That reminds me, I should use this time to email my real friends.
  6. What if the “other person” has subconsciously repressed the memory of their mother’s last words, “Hi. How are you?” I do want to bring up their past or ruin their day (or worse, spark an aggressive lash out of repressed grief). You never know what a supposedly innocent “Hello” might cause an unstable person to do!

Those are clearly the most pathetic excuses in the world, but let’s be honest now: how often do we use them? We come up with far more reasons to not talk to strangers than we have to engage with them.

The cost of not talking to strangers?

  1. We collectively, at a societal level, affirm our own insecurities by projecting them on to others. In short: we breed fear.
  2. We convince ourselves that the “average other person” is probably not as “nice” as we are, and perhaps even a little “meaner”.
  3. We build on a twisted cultural assumption that says that silence between people (a lack of interaction) equals safe, stable and secure situations.
  4. We imbue our own egos to honestly believe that wherever we are going and whatever we are doing is categorically more important than the other humans in our physical proximity.

Multiply the potential cost of our uncommunicative nature by the sum total of people on the bus or the number of people standing in the coffee shop line. The question stares us in the face: is the cost of fostering this culture of rabid individualism really worth it? What do we honestly think we gain by choosing to not interact with strangers?

So, for those of you who want to turn the tide and do your part to overhaul this culture of communal, self-obsessed isolation, here are some pointers for talking to strangers!

  1. “Hi. How are you doing?” is the typical North American greeting. It is not a “serious” question: hardly anyone actually responds with how they are honestly doing. However, it is a golden question to break the ice. If someone responds with the traditional refrain, “I am fine, thanks. How are you?” then you have the chance to share something about yourself: what are you doing? how do you feel about the day so far? where are you going? what are you thinking about? (Conversely, if someone simply says nothing, then they probably don’t want to talk to you. And that’s ok. The point here is not to proselytize conversations into existence.)
  2. The weather is a typical topic for conversation between strangers. This is because generally both individuals find themselves in the identical physical environment. Carry this over to other aspects of your environment: the volume of the music, the probable safety record of the bus driver, the laughable nature of the tabloid headlines — whatever is right there in front of you ingesting itself through your five senses is open game for easy conversation.

Live the culture you would like to see in your city. If you dream of a place where each individual life is a cloistered bastion of isolation, then by all means put your headphones in and shut up. On the other hand, if you think your city/street/lineup/bus/wherever would be a better place with just a wee little bit of camaraderie between souls, then just say hi to the person next to you, ok? That’s all.

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2011). 'Talking to Strangers' Originally published on May 27, 2011. Accessed on December 5, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=810
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