Parents provide some helpful hints for navigating life; through their guidance, we learn how not to die. Like, you know, when they teach us to look both ways before crossing a street. Or to abstain from playing with fire and knives. Lessons we take to heart, and abide by in adulthood.
But there is at least one lesson we learn as children that deserves repeal as an adult: Don’t Talk to Strangers. Unfortunately, this also happens to be one to which we continue to adhere long after we leave the nest.
We’re conditioned from our earliest memories to avoid strangers. We shouldn’t take candy from them, we shouldn’t climb into their cars, and we sure as hell better not talk to them. To do so risks being sent to that awful land called Missing.
“You see,” mom tells you during an episode of America’s Most Wanted, “that’s what happens to kids when they talk to strangers. They go missing.”
“They go to Missing?” you ask, now terrified just before bedtime.
“Yes, sweetie, they go missing. There’s a lot of bad people out there. It’s best not to risk it.”
And the night brings dreams of Strangers sweeping us off to Missing, the land of forgotten children, where who knows what happens to you–but whatever it is, it isn’t good. Necessary advice when we’re young.
As an adult, however, this advice yields a negative effect. Keeping quiet around strangers as an adult prevents one from making crucial social connections.
There are a lot of people who make the transition successfully–people we envy for amassing many close friends and big social networks. We call these people “outgoing” and “friendly.” As long as they’re tasteful in their approach, they’re the people we want to know–the fascinating and charming.
But the rest of us are as reserved as we were when we were kids. Talking to a stranger on an elevator? Sinful. Striking up a conversation with the person next to you on a plane? Impolite. Engaging the sandwich artist at Subway? She doesn’t want to talk to you anyway. Right?
And the bar scene, oh! Talking to strangers at the bar is the ultimate no-no. “He’s with his friends… He doesn’t want to be bothered… He probably wouldn’t like me anyway,” you reason.
Excuses. The REAL reason we don’t talk to strangers more often is because we’re uncomfortable. Reckoning childhood philosophy, something bad will come of talking to strangers. The consequence: rejection, or, even worse, an awkward, forced conversation. Best not to risk it.
Hmm. What if… and bear with me here… what if we’re wrong? What if an introduction to the guy at the bar led to a date, and the date led to a second, and the second led to a kiss, and the kiss…. you get my point. And what if it didn’t? So what? We’re left with exactly what we had to begin with. But if we choose NOT to speak to him, we’ll never know.
Same goes for friendship. If I stayed quiet the night I met my friend Ty just because I was in a room full of strangers, we wouldn’t have become friends, and I would’ve missed out on who I now refer to as My Sister From Another Mister.
Easier said than done? Yeah. We’re social animals, and no one wants to feel rejected. What if he rejects you AND makes fun of you afterward for talking to him? Ouch. Good news here, folks: those instances are few and far between. Most people feel the same way we do. And even if they’re assholes, we find out in a snap that they aren’t worth our time anyway.
So how do you meet a stranger? You try. My method: approach someone and say hello, pay them a quick compliment (“Love your shirt”), and assess if the conversation is worth pursuing. Yes, you may be rejected. But so were all those charismatic, popular people who have thriving social lives. The difference is resilience. Make one friend out of every 10 strangers you talk to, and you’ll realize very quickly that 9 “No’s” are worth every moment.