I love to learn about people, their likes, belief, and desires — and believe we can all benefit by stretching out of our conversational comfort zone
We are an efficiency-based country. Outside of our circle, we view communication merely as transactional. If there is nothing to be gained, then why engage?
Most of us go through life with blinders on. We move from place to place, eyes down or headphones in, trying hard to avoid strangers, interaction, and any conversation besides the small talk that is impersonal yet extremely common. Almost as a default, we smile and ask strangers, “How are you?” and then we want and expect to hear, “Fine.” Interaction over — without any real feelings or emotions being shared.
We can still find this deeper level of conversation, however. If you sit at the local barbershop or a salon, you will hear the patrons sharing stories of their families, politics, and religion. My son’s barber knew of his pending engagement before members of our family. What is about that environment where we are comfortable sharing with relative strangers? Is it that in your vulnerable position of being cared for, you feel a connection and comfortability?
Yet, an even smaller group of people exist who enjoy non-transactional, vulnerable conversations with strangers. I am one of those people. I love to get to that next level and learn about people, their likes, belief, and desires. In the grocery line, at the mall, a server in a restaurant. You make eye contact with me, and I can offer a witty comment or an invitation to engage. My children hate it. They always tell me to mind my own business, yet I am continually ignoring their suggestions.
Maybe the fear of a more profound connection comes from thinking we have nothing worth offering or that we will be seen as a nuisance…
This is a learned behavior that can probably be traced back to your childhood. Did a teacher say, “you aren’t adding anything,” were you bullied, did your parents value performance over praise? Without realizing it, these moments have a substantial effect on your grown-up self. Fortunately, the mind has the power to put things into perspective, and you can tell yourself that you are not the same person you were then. You have thoughts and opinions that are worth sharing. Share them.
For people who think they have something to say but are too shy to share it, their hesitation could result from embarrassment from not knowing what to say or blurting out something stupid. Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that can happen?” Trust me. I had had my share of people look at me strangely and hurriedly walk away. Yet, these isolated instances have not dissuaded me from trying again.
Perhaps it’s our ever-present fear of the unknown.
You also never know what baggage someone is carrying that might prevent them from seeming open or even rebuff your approach. And it could be fair. We look at all the terrible news every day as proof that our fears are well-founded. But…
You deny yourself a chance to learn and grow each time you erect a wall between you and a potential new friend.
Recently, I was forced to wait in a two-hour voting line in the pouring rain. The stress and tension of the event were palpable. I could have easily kept to myself like the other people waiting, gazing stoically off in the distance or staring at the ground, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. But that is just not who I am.
I searched my general area to find someone that I thought looked open to talk with me. Two hours is a long time to be silent. Fortunately, right in front of me stood a fifty-something gentleman. His hands were encrusted with dirt, his clothes were dirty, and I noticed the other people around me were giving him a wide birth. I could hear my husband uttering, “Ignore him.” And my son adding, “He is minding his own business.” I, however, saw the opportunity to try and make a new friend.
Just as I was thinking of some witty icebreaker, he said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we get to the front only to have someone tell us we are on the wrong line?” That is precisely the kind of conversation starter I would have used. This was serendipity, a like-minded man with an invitation to spend the next few hours in conversation. And boy, was I glad I did. This man was well-read and knowledgeable on topics ranging from literature to comic books. Our talk was spirited and funny and heartwarming, and then we reached the front of the line and went our separate ways.
For most, this brief interaction may be considered a waste of time and energy. I will probably never see this man again, so there was no chance that our encounter would lead to a deeper relationship. But to me, it was a lesson in the power of learning from strangers.
I left with new ideas, some interesting perspectives on old ideas, and even a few book titles.
My experience reminded me that there are many good reasons to engage with new people, the most important being a willingness to explore a human connection, leading to a deeper trust. Start with small talk. I am not saying we need to jump into our deepest thoughts. Just dip your toe into the realm of trust and slowly wade into a more intense sharing of ideas.
We need to learn to be open and trusting in the most non-threatening way. Rarely will one’s life be dramatically altered by engaging in banter with a stranger. But it could be the foundation for deeper connections or friendship. It is an opportunity to make a first impression, and we all know, “you only get one chance to make a good first impression.”
Humans are herd animals that crave connection with others. But if we continue to limit our circle to only those we know, our connections can get old and stale. Think about our Instagram or Facebook feeds. Social media is an echo chamber designed to reinforce your own beliefs. That is one of the reasons, so many people rely on it. But how many times can we talk about the same topics with the same people? Where is the opportunity to practice our opening lines, work on our witty banter or partake in some verbal volleying?
We need to break the cycle that exists and take responsibility for teaching others the importance of connections.
I remember telling my children when they were young, “Do not talk to strangers.” For some people, they carry this childhood lesson deep into their adulthood. It is not supposed to be like that. Once we mature and can discern danger, we need to be able to engage with the world. Ignoring these brief social opportunities is missing out on creating connections and enhancing their lives as well as our own. Simply think of this instead: if you don’t talk to strangers, you could be missing out on meeting your new best friend, business partner, or love of your life.
What are you waiting for?
You may also enjoy reading Finding Solace in Silence by Judy Marano