We were always told as kids – “Don’t talk to strangers” because who knew what dangers lurked around the corner! While caution is all very well, there are plenty of reasons why we should talk to strangers as well.
This is unusual advice to give anyone…that it is a good idea to talk to complete strangers. It seems counterintuitive and somewhat dangerous doesn’t it? Well it isn’t! Talking to strangers can be enjoyable and instructive. It is about stepping out of your comfort zone and can be hugely enriching, in ways that you may not be aware of. So why exactly should you talk to strangers? Strange as it may seem, there are plenty of reasons:
- Most strangers are not dangerous: If you feel threatened and afraid when you’re out, in crowds and in public spaces, then this is really important for you to do. Speaking to strangers will help you get over this largely unreasonable fear. It will show you that most people are harmless. Acknowledging this fact will make you happier about being out in public. Not only will this help you get over unreasonable fears it will help you like people more and view them with less mistrust!
- It’s good to be friendly: How do you know what you have in common with someone else unless you first say ‘Hi’ and then perhaps start a conversation? You may end up helping someone; someone may end up helping you! Take the example of those who travel by Mumbai local trains – conversations start between strangers. Many people then turn into lifelong friends. You don’t have to become friends with strangers (though a casual social interaction could lead to a friendship as in the case of those local trains) but in that moment, that causal exchange, that small social interaction could make you and that stranger happier!
- It is liberating: We tend to be trapped within our own habits and within certain cultural expectations. Sometimes we hesitate to talk to strangers because we are shy or because we fear rejection or a rebuff. Sometimes we don’t do it because of how others will see us – how it may be construed as ‘bold’ or rather brazen. However, speaking to strangers can be strangely liberating. Here we use our perceptions instead of our fears and see people as human beings – not what their age, dress or appearance proclaim them to be. Plus, when we get positive reactions from strangers, it bolsters our sense of self.
- It can be enriching: Quite simply, talking to strangers can be educative, may give you new information and valuable advice. For instance, you’re in a store where someone is thinking of making a purchase but wondering about the cost effectiveness or quality of a product. You already have and use that product. If you decide to share your experience, that person is most likely to be helped by this. Who knows, you could reap similar benefits on another day! Strangers can be very helpful in myriad different ways!
- It widens our perspective: You should most certainly speak to strangers when you’re traveling. Of course, it is a good idea to do this within the cultural context of the place you’re visiting so as not to offend the locals. However, within those limitations, people who are strangers to you but familiar with local customs and conditions can be hugely informative. Such interactions offer you valuable perspective about a new place and its people. You come away not only having seen the sights but also having experienced the people!
- Speaking to strangers removes bias: Do you tend to speak mostly to PLU (people like us)? Do you hesitate to speak to strangers of a certain age, dressed a certain way or those who clearly belong to a certain community? Well then you simply must talk to strangers who appear different from you. It can be wonderful to find out that underneath the surface, we are all remarkably similar no matter what our economic, religious or social backgrounds may be. We start to look at people, even groups, differently, more sympathetically and more acceptingly when we get to know them…even a little. Prejudice is never nice; do all that you can to overcome it, including speaking to strangers who look ‘different’.
- ‘Fleeting Intimacy’: Researchers of psychology have identified such interactions as fleeting intimacy: a brief, positive experience with a stranger that gives you a good feeling and perhaps improves your day. Consider how you feel when a stranger points out that the ATM you’re waiting outside is not dispensing cash; you are grateful (to the stranger) for saving a bit of your time. These exchanges also help you feel part of the community and can be very important if you’re a stranger in a new city. The fleeting intimacy hypothesis also envisages that we are able to be honest with strangers and that we are sometimes better understood by strangers than by those close to us!
- We Indians are curious, convivial people: We Indians are naturally friendly and curious. We are happy to help, to offer an opinion or offer advice. Witness how a complete stranger will take the time to give you detailed instructions to an address should you ask them for assistance. Why curb this natural willingness to speak to strangers?
How to talk to strangers
Now if you have come around to thinking that talking to strangers may just be a good idea but aren’t sure how to start, here is what you can do. Waiting at a bus stop or for a taxi with someone? Comment on how hot it is or how the public transport system in the city has improved in recent times. Compliment people: think dogs and babies principle; compliments about kids and puppies are easy and always well received. In the same shop as someone else, compliment them on their shawl or ask where they bought their smart bag.
Another way to have a meaningful or enriching exchange with a stranger is to share something personal or painful. You may be amazed at how, when you volunteer to offer honest information, the other person is very likely to reciprocate in kind. Say, for instance, you’re in the waiting room of a hospital, waiting to find out about the outcome of a surgery of someone close to you. Sharing some of this information with another person waiting there could be comforting. Who knows, they may have had experiences that are comforting and soothing for you at the time!
Don’t let your personal reticence or even cultural taboos restrict you from enjoying the kind of enriching and enlightening experiences that you can have with complete strangers!