Most of us were admonished as children not to talk to strangers, for fear of kidnapping, or worse. Although the intention behind the directive is admirable and may seem like responsible parenting, it might set a child up for unnecessary hesitation to meet new people and perhaps even lead to social anxiety. When my son was young, my instruction to him was that he could talk to strangers only if an adult he trusted was with him. He was not permitted to go anywhere with someone he didn’t know, nor accept anything from them. I reminded him that everyone in our lives started out as a stranger and that closeness developed over time as someone became more familiar. As I contemplate it, it occurs to me that I also encouraged him to trust his instincts about someone feeling unsafe.
Throughout his life, he would question if I knew a person I might greet in the supermarket or on the street as we would pass by. When I would tell him that he or she was new to me, he would ask, puzzled why I would say hello. My response was that this person was in my world and I never knew what relationship might develop between us. I have cultivated many friendships that way.
Now at 30, he still rolls his eyes at his highly extroverted mother who hugs strangers on the street. Although he makes friends easily, it is not in his paradigm to actively solicit contact with a person not already in his circles.
One of my favorite places to engage in conversation is in airports. As I have been doing a fair amount of traveling, it has become a more frequent practice. Yesterday when returning from a visit to friends in Portland, Oregon, I found myself sitting next to a couple who appeared to be in their 30’s. He was wearing a black and white Star Wars t-shirt and she was carrying a multi-colored dragon pillow to lean into during the flight. Immediately, I felt a connection to them. She related that she was an anxious flyer and asked if she could hold my hand during takeoff, as she also held her partner’s hand. I naturally agreed. As the plane ascended, I could feel her grip as I reassured her that we would be fine and of course, we were. Within a few minutes, as we were leveling out, she released her hand. Nothing about this experience felt awkward. She kept thanking me for supporting her. The three of us spoke about making a difference in people’s lives and being kind. We talked about surrendering what we couldn’t control. It also turns out that she knows people from my area, although their names aren’t familiar. When we got off the plane and headed our separate ways, we hugged goodbye, having met new soul friends. Hope they stay in touch.
Getting to know our neighbors is life enhancing and perhaps even life-saving. In many communities, people can go days without seeing those who live nearby or if they do, only nod in their direction. Consider news stories about people who have died and took days to be discovered because no one checked up on them.
What are the benefits of talking to strangers?
- Moving away from isolative behavior
- Learning something new
- Expanding circles of support
- Creative inspiration