Kids, don’t talk to strangers…
One of the first things we’re warned about as kids is stranger danger. ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ was practically the catchphrase of everyone’s childhood.
However, as we grow up, this peculiar complex seems to leave us deathly afraid of other people. Yep, other human beings in general, who may or may not be axe murderers. But given the fact most people are not, in fact, lunatics, this would seem impractical.
Nevertheless, I usually go about my day under the assumption that most people are going to murder me. By which I mean I generally avoid conversation with strangers, not only for the same reasons my parents told me, but so other people don’t think I’m a crazy person.
However, that doesn’t stop me being curious about other people’s lives. Why are they reading that particular book? Where are they going so obscenely early on a Sunday morning? Which cafe did they buy that outrageously delicious-looking chocolate cronut from? Eventually, for the sake of pseudo-science, I decided to answer all of these pressing questions by biting the bullet and talking to strangers for a week. And it was a lot more eyebrow-raising than I expected…
Days one and two I’m embarrassed to say were pretty much complete write offs. I’m an outgoing person, but found myself completely chickening out when it came to conversation openers. Day three I was determined to just get on with it. On the train one morning, I was sitting next to a 30-something woman, who was reading the newspaper. Like, an actual newspaper, not one on her phone. Finally. An actual talking point. After a few minutes, I plucked up enough courage to take the plunge.
“Oh wow, an actual paper newspaper!” I said with a smile.
“I swear I haven’t seen one in ages, everyone is always on their smartphones now, right?”
Rather than the bright response I thought I might get, the woman uttered a vague, “Hmmm,” without so much as glances up from her paper at me, turned the page, and said nothing else. Needless to say, it was super awkward for the next 10 minutes until she left the train.
Still, undeterred, I tried again, a couple of times with other passengers, when I changed trains (it was a long trip). To my surprise, despite my polite demeanor and friendly tone, the general response was the same; aloof, uncomfortable replies followed by a dismissive turn of the head or shrug of the shoulder. I was so discouraged by my experience, I left well enough alone for the rest of the day.
Day four I decided to get a bit more strategic. Okay, so people on the morning train weren’t keen to chat, but what about elsewhere, and maybe later in the day? After all, people are always in a terrible mood on their way to work before 8AM. So I waited until after 11AM, when people are usually on a coffee break. The responses were markedly different…
I told a woman I liked her shoes, and instead of brushing off the compliment, she flashed me a huge smile and said her husband had bought them for her for her birthday, before gigglishly confiding in me how happy she was he had actually got her something she wanted this year.
Later on, I affirmed the fact it’s okay to splurge on a diet cheat day when I stood next to a guy piling three sugars on his double whipped cream caramel latte at the coffee shop. He looked at me with such gratitude, and thanked me for being the objective third party to relieve his guilt.
I tried the same stint in different coffee shops throughout the day and had the same result. Clearly, people were happy to talk when surrounded by things that put them in a happy mood. Namely, coffee and great shoes. So simple, but so obvious.
Days five and six I decided to devote to complimenting parents on their children. I know that might sound a little odd, but from my time as a nanny, I know parents can’t resist a non-creepy-looking person telling them how cute their little mini-me is. And I was certainly no exception.
I told a young couple their newborn had the look of a future world leader about her, and their beaming faces could have powered 20 light bulbs. I commented to one father about how clever his little boy was reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at such a young age. He gushed over how much his son loved reading, and how he would introduce him to Shakespeare as soon as he could. I even sang a toddler to sleep on the train in a packed carriage that afternoon, much to the delight of his exhausted mother, who was also trying to placate her eight year-old.
I must have spoken to about 17 sets of parents over those two days, and the other reactions were variants of the same. Maybe it was primal instinct, maybe I just caught them all at a very good point in their days. Either way, it was evident parents really, really seem to appreciate someone giving them a little credit for their child-rearing skills.
Then finally came day seven. The end of my enlightening yet somewhat awkward week. I thought for sure, it would be a poignant one, that the fates would lead me to a potential lifelong friend, or the cure to cancer, or something equally dramatic. But it actually turned out to be the most boring day of all. I was so busy with my various life-aspects I hardly got a chance to talk to anyone. Yes, I had the odd awkward encounter with commuters heading home from work (they’re actually grumpier in the evening than the morning), but aside from that, I didn’t get my moral catharsis.
So what did I learn from my week of callously disregarding all the advice my parents gave me as a child? Well, as a general rule, human beings don’t mind being approached, as so long as you get them around something that makes them happy. And preferably not first thing in the morning.
Comment: Do you ever talk to strangers? Do you think we need to learn to be more open and friendly to others?