I know what you’re thinking. Are you crazy? Didn’t your parents ever teach you not to talk to strangers? Yes, but as an eight year old girl I didn’t internalize the warning as something that might actually save my life one day, and I’ll never forget the day that changed my inexperienced and trusting approach toward all people.
It was a typical school morning. I woke up at 6:30am, shoved a bowl of cereal down my throat, and walked down to the hill at the end of our driveway with my twin sister and my older brother. As third graders, my sister and I imagined fairy lands in the nearby bushes and trees, while my fifth grade brother played with sticks and built rock piles as we patiently waited for the familiar yellow school bus to arrive. Everything was typical about that morning. That is until an unfamiliar tan car pulled into our driveway, ten feet from us. A man with white hair in his early 60’s got out of the car and started talking to us. “Hey, you know the bus already went by, right?
My brother’s shoulders tensed. “No, I don’t think it did.”
The man took a step toward us. My brother encouraged us to take a step back. “I can give you a ride to school.”
My sister and I, in our capricious and naive minds, thought this was a nice gesture and forgot our parents warning in a moment where getting to school was our number one priority. “Okay,” was our response.
We start walking toward the car, but my brother obstructs us from getting any closer to the stranger and his car. “No. I think we better go talk to our mom.”
“Are you sure?” the strange man asks. “I know where the school is.”
Just as we were about to turn to head up our driveway and into the safety of our mother’s arms, the yellow school bus stopped in front of us. I watched my mom step outside of the house and assess the situation. Her cries of concern were instigated by the stranger’s car, but a wave of relief washed over her when the blinking lights of the school bus appeared. The man, now aware of the thorny situation he had got himself into, slipped back into the driver’s seat and he sped off down the road, leaving the three of us slightly terrified and incredibly puzzled.
This moment now hangs in my memory as a reminder of how dangerous people can be. But after years of maturing and developing a stronger sense of awareness, I have realized something. Talking to strangers isn’t always a bad thing. Yes, it’s risky because you don’t actually know what is going to happen when you interact with a stranger. But being the age I am, I have learned to identify and place the vast majority of strangers, that make up this world, into four different groups.
- The Fire Starters – These are the strangers you know you probably shouldn’t be talking to (like the man that lied about our bus going by). The ones that provide you with telling signs and red flags that nothing good can come out of interacting with them (like the signs my brother picked up on). These are the strangers you have likely developed an instinctive and overactive awareness of their behavior.
- The Unavailable Surfers – You know the people that stare at their phones 24/7 and never look up? This is because these people purposefully make themselves unavailable to the physical world and completely available to a world that lives inside their screens. They would rather be web surfing or riding the wave of social media posts and comments than participate in their current physical reality.
- The People Watchers – These are the people that choose to observe rather than interact. They would rather watch and reflect on the behavior of others in the moment and generate a sense of who this person is through their eyes rather than through their words.
- The Initiators – These are the strangers you know feel comfortable talking to other strangers. It doesn’t matter where they are or what they are doing, they aren’t afraid to interact and explore the hearts and minds of people unknown to them.
Based on these four groups, I assess how I should interact with strangers in public places and even in more private settings. If I were to put myself in one of these groups, I would categorize myself as more of a People Watcher. Instead of looking at my phone, I try to focus my attention on the people that make up my reality around me. I’ll admit that I’ve tried to be one of the Initiators, but I’m always more willing to reciprocate the advances of a conversationalist rather than be the one to start the conversation. Being the Initiator is scary because you are the one making the advance. You are the one making the choice to open your world to a stranger, even if it’s just for a moment. And that’s pretty damn terrifying. But I’ve arrived at the conclusion that there is so much good that can come out of conversations with people we don’t know yet. In fact, I think it is the purest form of fear, discovery, and hidden love all rolled into one moment.
If you think about it, everyone is a stranger to you when you are first brought into the world. You’re cold, you’re confused, and the next few years of your life is a constant transition from one thing to another. You meet this uncle, this family friend, your friend’s cousin that has a mullet, etc. Even your parents are strangers to you when you are first born. And, heck, maybe your parents are strangers to you your entire life. Each individual creates their own circle of people they have grown comfortable with in their life whether it is their parents, grandparents, or maybe a close knit group of hippies. Whatever the case may be, we all have those people in our lives that we forget were once strangers to us, but who helped us become the individuals we are now.
Some might ask, “Okay, so why can’t I just stay in my comfortable bubble that I’ve created over the last two or three or four decades? I’ve met all of the people I want to meet. Why should I subject myself to the criticism, judgement, and potential physical and emotional dangers of letting more people and more strangers in? That just sounds daunting and unnecessary.”
By all means, live in your bubble. But let me tell you something. Becoming a truly effective communicator means stepping out of your comfort zone and looking danger in the face. I don’t mean physical danger. Please, don’t do that. Try and use your common sense when it comes to the Fire Starters. What I mean is the danger of attachment and rejection. This form of emotional danger requires working through the troubles that come with meeting someone, falling in love with their soul and spirit, and not wanting to let them go. It means overcoming the fears that come with not being accepted. And that is the beauty of strangers. You can face and overcome deep rooted fears and emotional insecurities at a fairly low and semi-painless cost.
Whether you’re getting coffee, waiting to register your car at the DMV, or sitting on a park bench reading your favorite book, this world is full of strangers and the endless possibilities to connect with them. I know. The thought of talking to someone unknown to you is completely and utterly terrifying. Like I said, I have trouble doing it myself. But when reflecting on my past encounters with strangers, here are all of the potential outcomes I have generated happening when talking to a stranger (particularly in a public setting like a coffee shop, bookstore, airport, etc.).
- If your souls collide and you really hit it off, you could walk away with a new best friend or a new lover.
- If your souls collide and you really hit it off, you could walk away smiling to yourself in knowing that you just had the most beautiful conversation with the loveliest person, and you’ll likely never see them again. That moment in your life can exist in your memory as a pure and flawless form of communication that you will revisit when the ability for people to communicate with you breaks down in your life later on. This will hopefully rekindle your lack of confidence in humanity.
- If the conversation turns awkward, you go your separate ways and likely never see each other again.
- If the conversation turns sour, you go your separate ways and likely never see each other again.
So what’s the worst thing that could happen? You never talk to them again! That’s it. Life is all about the choices we make and the chances we take. Being open to talking to strangers (even if I haven’t been the one initiating the conversations) has allowed me to be more openminded to the people that the world has to offer me and what letting different types of people into my world can do to enrich my own life. While sitting in coffee shops, I’ve met mothers and teachers who I’ve talked with about parenting and the education system. While standing in line at the grocery store, I’ve talked to farmers and business owners about the decline of our economy and the employment crisis that has infested our current society. While going for a run on a sunny, 80 degree day, I’ve talked to other fitness enthusiasts about the surplus of technology and the lack of movement in the average American’s day. Talking to people outside of my well-established bubble of people I can trust, has made me a less fearful, a more vulnerable, and, to be quite honest, a more interesting person.
I have had some of the best conversations with total strangers and I have had some of the worst conversations with people I have known for days, months, or even years. I’ve also experienced moments when I am sitting in a coffee shop, surrounded by strangers, and in excellent company. And I have also experienced moments when I felt alone in a group of people that I considered friends. I think this point has made me reexamine my definition of a stranger and loneliness.
Strangers are not people we haven’t met. Strangers are people that we have met and still do not know.
Loneliness isn’t a physical state of being. Loneliness is an emotion we experience when our world around us makes us feel unsupported, unappreciated, unrecognized, and unloved.
I’ve always been a person who has often found more company in being alone than with other people. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote:
“I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.”
This may not be true for everyone, but for people like me who are full of artistic and creative endeavors, I have found that I am in the most company when I am submerged in my art and in the music that other’s create. Yet, when other people who do not understand me enter this haven I have created myself, I start to find myself incredibly lost and alone in the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspect of my being. I see myself as both a creature of solitude and intimacy. When I am by myself, I appreciate the moments I see as opportunities for self-reflection and self-improvement. And when I am with people, I often choose quality over quantity. I’d rather be in a heated and emotionally charged conversation about the purpose of the universe with an individual I met five minutes prior rather than spend an entire night engaging in mindless chatter about the weather and whether Penny ended up buying that cute dress or not. I certainly do engage in this type of conversation regularly in my day to day life, but it is the conversations that breathe new ideas, new perspectives, and new life into me that excites and inspires me to experience so much more of the world and my existence than I originally had planned.
And these people that we call “strangers”, simply because we haven’t physically interacted with them, are really just people that we haven’t been given a chance to discover if they really are a stranger, a friend, or maybe even a lover. So the next time you put your phone down and are out and about in this beautiful and magical world of unexplored people and untaken chances, don’t see people as strangers. See strangers as people. You never know what kinds of spirited conversations you might have. Some of these conversations may go as quickly as they come and some may lead to a wonderful and everlasting memory you can tuck in the back of your mind for a quick “humanity sucks” pick me up. Or you might find yourself falling into decades of conversations that kiss your dreams and caress your soul in ways that only someone who truly knows you can. And you may never know, unless you give people a chance, the ones who have also indulged in the beauty of unpredictability.