Culture teaches us to be scared of strangers.
Strangers hand out poisoned candy, set off bombs, and abduct children. Oh wait, that last one usually happens with someone you know.
Oh wait, even people who set off bombs and hand out poisoned candy aren’t strangers to everyone. They are neighbors and husbands and friends and co-workers.
Yeats is famous for saying, “There are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet.” I’m not feeling quite that Pollyanna-ish, but seriously, we all know that Stranger Danger is just a revamped costume for the bogeyman. So, then, why are we scared of strangers?
Lots of reasons that I could get super philosophical about. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the familiar. Blah blah blah.
But, the real reason that most of us don’t interact with people we don’t already know is that we think that we may not like them or they may not like us.
Basically, we don’t talk to strangers because we are scared that they will have to reject us or we will have to reject them. How fucking boring is that? How many bullshit judgements do we make about people before they even open their mouths? How much does this limit the kinds of conversations we get to have and the kind of people that we get to know?
I wanted to find out, so I set a resolution to talk to one stranger a day for the month of October. I promised myself that I wouldn’t just do the nod and, “what’s up,” that I would actually try to make a connection each day with someone that I don’t know.
And guess what? You can probably guess.
People that I don’t know have things to say that I haven’t heard before.
Richard, in the produce section at the Co-op, is from Vermont and knows a lot about making stocks and soups and used to live in a cabin. Mallory, walking her dog at the levee, is from Maine and spent her youth hopping trains and sings country blues music. That guy at my wife’s preschool party who I assumed was probably sort of snobby and square worries that he didn’t buy quick enough in my neighborhood and that now he’s priced out.
People are not what they seem. They are infinitely more interesting than our limited imaginations give them credit for.
Making a commitment to talking to strangers has changed the way I do the usual things: grocery shop, wait in lines, pump gas. Because I have a resolution, I am actively seeking out conversations and asking myself to step outside of my comfort zone.
But the thing is that it actually feels really comfortable. No one has rejected me. No one has hit on me. No one has taken my interest in them as an opportunity to take advantage of me. And, perhaps best of all, I haven’t blown anyone off, or feigned disinterest so they wouldn’t take up too much of my time. I feel friendlier and more capable of making friends.
Talking to strangers hasn’t just affected how I interact with strangers, though. I have noticed that I am making more of an effort to connect with people, generally. In those quiet moments before class starts, I have actively inquired about my students lives and opinions. I have ended up having great conversations about skiing, divorce, country club republicans, anxiety, you name it. I have also been listened to and gotten great advice on everything from my taxes to learning how to charge ethically for my services (Thanks Lelia).
Talking to strangers has made both the people that I know and the people that I don’t know seem far less strange, far more interesting, and much less scary. And, I learned how to make veggie stock in a crock pot.
If you want to read about my adventures facing my fears, start here.