In a time when we friend people on Facebook before we do in real-life and spend our days with isolationist white buds plugged in our ears, it can feel like the act of starting a conversation is an insurmountable challenge. The idea of walking up to someone you don’t know, someone who could be anybody, and letting the words direct themselves is more than a little scary. And this isn’t even to mention the fear of rejection: What if the other person thinks you’re weird, or crazy? Could you handle that?
Yes. You can. We’re hard-wired to want to be with other people, so it’s ironic that the wiring we’re so busy inventing with our brains is, in so many instances, doing just the opposite.
So I challenge everybody to try talking to strangers, at least once. There’s something magical about the spontaneity of talking to someone you don’t know, and there’s an undeniable adrenaline rush in not being able to pigeonhole them based on who they’re friends with and where they live. In fact, one of the great things about talking to strangers is that you know almost nothing about them. You might think that they’re cute, but you have no way to predict whether they share your love for M.I.A. — unless they’re wearing the concert t-shirt. Voila! A conversation starter!
Of course, your mother told you not to talk to strangers, which made sense when you were four: Any person who eats crayons probably needs to be reminded not to follow home that bearded man with the cute puppy. But we’re adults now. Hopefully most of us can discern between the creepy conspiracy theorists and any other random person.
And the random part is important. Friends-of-friends are a good start, but I’m talking about real strangers: The guy waiting next to you at the airport wearing a cool hat, or the girl on the El reading that Cormac McCarthy book that you love. People who have no apparent connection to you other than the undeniable fact that you are, at least temporarily, occupying the same geographical and space-time location. Instead of dismissing them as part of the scenery, why not try looking at them as the collection of opinions and experiences and peculiar bits of information that they actually are?
My personal stranger moment occurred in Logan Airport, one of the least joyous places in life. On my way back from Spring Break to this frozen tundra of a campus, I was waiting in the security line and noticed that the guy in front of me was rocking an awesome 1920s-style fedora. I complimented him on it and the two of us got to talkin’. It turned out that he was a student out here at the School of the Art Institute, studying something involving metalwork and very heavy bowls that are not popular with TSA personnel. We ended up sitting and talking for about half an hour about hockey, bad drivers, Quentin Tarantino, and anything else falling within that spectrum. Oh, and he bought me a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.
Yes, strangers can be boring, awkward, or having a rough day. But maybe you’ll find someone else who loves bad zombie movies as much as you do, or who just got back from a trip in the city where you’re going to be studying abroad. Perhaps you’ll make a friend, or get a phone number, or even obtain that ever-so-elusive phenomenon: a date.
These are all hypothetical, of course, but they’re also all possible. They just demand a little effort on your part, and a little willingness to put yourself out there and let things unfold. It might be scary, but it also could be more rewarding than you expect.
It’s like my mother always said: How can you know you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it?