I have a friend, an extrovert of the highest order, who will talk to a stranger anywhere, anytime; on an escalator, in a doctor’s waiting room, at the checkout line, in the stands at the ball park.
She seems genetically incapable of turning down an opportunity to ask a question or make small talk. Most of us – and I definitely include myself in this category – tend to keep to ourselves in public settings. We’ve perfected the “Don’t Approach” look by avoiding eye contact, burying our head in a book, staring straight ahead, or fumbling with our smartphones. The idea that we would initiate a conversation … well, that’s just absurd. We complete our errands with a clear objective in mind, which is to get in and get out as quickly and seamlessly as possible. To stop and chitchat would extend the outing time and veer us off course.
It’s not that we’re not friendly, us in-and-outers. Most of us are perfectly nice in the majority of settings. But in a crowded or chaotic area, a lot of us will walk right by you without saying a word, simply because one word turns into a thousand, and a thousand words lengthens our errand to an unacceptable extent. No offence is intended.
Watching my friend in action is like starting a movie: it’s bright and promising and you never know where it’s going. Who knows what might happen and how the story will unfold? I’ve seen her have such successful conversations that lead to new friendships, and I’ve also seen people flat out ignore the fact that she’s speaking to them.
“That’s a pretty scarf,” she’ll remark to a total stranger. “Did you buy it here?”
Or: “I’m not sure I like the team’s new uniforms. Do you?” Or: “I’m so happy we’re finally getting cooler weather.”
Everyone’s got a story, she believes, so why not coax it out? She also thinks that people respond positively to attention. When you smile or nod or exchange a few words, the wait in line feels shorter, the commute goes by faster, the day begins to look better. In other words, a simple act of friendliness can be a mood changer.
And she’s not wrong. Irritated people standing in a long line become less tense when someone with a positive attitude breaks the silence with something nice to say. I’ve seen it happen.
I’ve been thinking about my friend’s gregariousness for two different reasons. First, I read a report about how many people in the western world feel lonely despite the fact that, in this era of instant communication, we can reach out for a digital connection at any time. Everyone, from CEOs to mental health experts, is calling it a loneliness epidemic.
If this is true, then my friend might very well be making the difference in someone’s day just by speaking to them, however innocuously. That’s a pretty powerful reason for her to take the chance, I think.
The second reason I’ve been mulling over our exchanges with strangers – or lack thereof, in my case – is because of a podcast I listened to, a review of a new book by Malcolm Gladwell called, “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know.” In it, the author looks at the many examples and possibilities of miscommunication. The book, however, isn’t so much a meditation on loneliness, but rather about what can go wrong when we talk to the stranger next to us on the bus, and about people making bad judgment calls when they interact.
In a roundabout way, Gladwell confirms what parents have been telling their children forever: Don’t talk to strangers. Making friendly with people you don’t know can only lead to trouble, and who knows what else.
It was an interesting conversation, this podcast I listen to, but I’m not sure it really applies in every situation, especially in this neck of the woods. There’s something to be said for breaking out of our comfort zone and reaching out to people. Social connections, however brief, work wonders for both our mental well-being and social cohesion.
Initiating conversations, my friend says, makes her less grumpy, and she thinks it does the same for others. I’m not advocating you interrupt a napping passenger or a reading commuter, but a few friendly words can go a long way in an age where too many of us don’t bother.