SO HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THAT WE COMMUNICATE SO WELL WITH STRANGERS?
There are two reasons. The first one is that it’s a quick interaction. It has no consequences. It’s easy to be honest with someone you’re never going to see again, right? That makes sense.
The second reason is where it gets more interesting. We have a bias when it comes to people we’re close to. We expect them to understand us. We assume they do, and we expect them to read our minds.
So imagine you’re at a party, and you can’t believe that your friend or your spouse isn’t picking up on it that you want to leave early. And you’re thinking, “I gave you the look.”
With a stranger, we have to start from scratch. We tell the whole story, we explain who the people are, how we feel about them; we spell out all the inside jokes. And guess what? Sometimes they do understand us a little better. OK.
So now that we know that talking to strangers matters, how does it work? There are unwritten rules we tend to follow. The rules are very different depending on what country you’re in, what culture you’re in.
In most parts of the US, the baseline expectation in public is that we maintain a balance between civility and privacy. This is known as civil inattention.
So, imagine two people are walking towards each other on the street. They’ll glance at each other from a distance. That’s the civility, the acknowledgment. And then as they get closer, they’ll look away, to give each other some space.
In other cultures, people go to extraordinary lengths not to interact at all. People from Denmark tell me that many Danes are so averse to talking to strangers, that they would rather miss their stop on the bus than say “excuse me” to someone that they need to get around.
Instead, there’s this elaborate shuffling of bags and using your body to say that you need to get past, instead of using two words.
In Egypt, I’m told, it’s rude to ignore a stranger, and there’s a remarkable culture of hospitality. Strangers might ask each other for a sip of water.
Or, if you ask someone for directions, they’re very likely to invite you home for coffee. We see these unwritten rules most clearly when they’re broken, or when you’re in a new place and you’re trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.
Sometimes breaking the rules a little bit is where the action is. In case it’s not clear, I really want you to do this. OK?
So here’s how it’s going to go. Find somebody who is making eye contact. That’s a good signal. The first thing is a simple smile. If you’re passing somebody on the street or in the hallway here, smile. See what happens.
Another is triangulation. There’s you, there’s a stranger, there’s some third thing that you both might see and comment on, like a piece of public art or somebody preaching in the street or somebody wearing funny clothes. Give it a try. Make a comment about that third thing, and see if it starts a conversation.
Another is what I call noticing. This is usually giving a compliment. I’m a big fan of noticing people’s shoes. I’m actually not wearing fabulous shoes right now, but shoes are fabulous in general. And they’re pretty neutral as far as giving compliments goes.
People always want to tell you things about their awesome shoes. You may have already experienced the dogs and babies principle. It can be awkward to talk to someone on the street; you don’t know how they’re going to respond.
But you can always talk to their dog or their baby. The dog or the baby is a social conduit to the person, and you can tell by how they respond whether they’re open to talking more.
The last one I want to challenge you to is disclosure. This is a very vulnerable thing to do, and it can be very rewarding.
So next time you’re talking to a stranger and you feel comfortable, tell them something true about yourself, something really personal. You might have that experience I talked about of feeling understood.
Sometimes in conversation, it comes up, people ask me, “What does your dad do?” or, “Where does he live?” And sometimes I tell them the whole truth, which is that he died when I was a kid.
Always in those moments, they share their own experiences of loss. We tend to meet disclosure with disclosure, even with strangers.
So, here it is. When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life and theirs. You’re making unexpected connections.
If you don’t talk to strangers, you’re missing out on all of that. We spend a lot of time teaching our children about strangers.
What would happen if we spent more time teaching ourselves? We could reject all the ideas that make us so suspicious of each other. We could make a space for change.
Resources for Further Reading: