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Social Risk Taking

The Joy of Talking to Strangers

It’s a therapeutic axiom that what we learn in our home while growing up determines how we act in the world as adults. If we have outgoing friendly parents, we will be comfortable with other people and probably reach out to others and build a network of friends. If we have shy, withdrawn parents, we will be less prone as adults to initiate social contact and therefore will most likely make fewer friends. Our social interactive comfort level is pretty much determined by the time we are teenagers.

If we’re lucky, we might meet folks during our formative years who can offset those things we learned that aren’t conducive to building a social network of friends. 

I was lucky to have two people in my life who were outgoing and liked interacting with others—my mother and my uncle Len. Both would initiate spontaneous conversations with strangers. As a result, I thought such social reaching out was acceptable and I began doing it at a young age. 

I discovered early on that such spontaneous interactions can lead to rich and joyful experiences. I’ll share three such instances with you. 

I once went on a vacation to Hawaii and mistakenly booked one of those “ten days at a beach hotel for ninety-nine bucks” offers. Sadly, the room was horrible, and my companion and I found ourselves surrounded by loud twenty-year-olds, each trying to see who could projectile-vomit the farthest. We knew after the first two nights that we had made a big mistake. On the third day, while drinking a Mai Tai at a beach bar, I struck up a conversation with a couple next to me by commenting on their tan and opining they were  Hawaii residents. They were pleased and invited us to their table for a round of drinks. When they asked where we were staying, I explained we had ignorantly booked ourselves into party hell and described the nightly insanity. They commiserated and as we chatted it turned out  they were property owners and had an unoccupied beach condo for rent on Maui. They offered it to us at a reasonable price and we accepted. The condo was beautifully appointed and situated so conveniently we opted to extend our stay. It was a wonderful vacation. 

The second instance occurred recently while I was riding my bicycle on my regular pedaling route here in Florida. Part of it passes through a street with some very large homes on the water. There was a couple walking by and they said hello. Spontaneously, I made the comment that the big home we were adjacent to (a huge, overdone affair) looked “like Tony Soprano’s vacation home.” They both laughed and the woman said, “And from the size of the columns, it looks like Tony is a big fan of Gone With the Wind. I think I can hear Tara’s Theme.” The man chirped in, “And if the columns were any bigger, visitors would need a library card.” I broke up and we laughed together. After chatting for a few minutes, we parted company, and I think it’s safe to say the three of us, for those few minutes, enjoyed the playful albeit short social connection. 

The third example occurred years ago in New York City’s Little Italy. My folks and I were eating at the Grotto Azure, one of our favorite places. The tables were close to each other and we could see the dishes of food being served at neighboring tables. My mother spied an interesting dish and spontaneously asked the recipients,  “May I ask the name of that wonderful looking dish?” One replied,  “It’s such and such—would you like to try a bit of it?” My mother said, “Yes, I would,” and the man gave her a little portion on a bread plate. When our dishes came, we shared portions with them. Then, a person at a different table asked us if we’d ever eaten a certain dish on his table, and within a short period, we had a three-way food-sharing party going on. I still remember the evening with great pleasure. It all came about because of my mother’s initial inquiry. 

Be clear—I’m not suggesting we barge into the private social space of strangers as a matter of course. I’m simply suggesting that strangers at the right time and place can offer opportunities for rich human connections of short duration. For a final example, I often talk to the register folks when checking out at supermarkets. I make comments based on what I see. For example, today, after a checkout woman had to remind me to push “enter” on the credit card machine, I asked her how many times a week she had to remind people to do it. She crossed her eyes and said, “Oh—maybe a thousand times.” We both laughed and at that moment, our connection altered in an important way—we left the robotic realm of the impersonal and entered the world of human connectedness. 

I suggest you try speaking to strangers. There’s a lot of fun and richness to be experienced.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.