Talking to Strangers: My Adventures in Connecting to Others

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klimkin / Pixabay

When I was a student at the University of Calgary, I had a good friend named Mo, who was probably one of the most social people I have ever met. Whenever Mo and I would hang out, it was impossible to go anywhere without passing someone that would wave and say hi or stop to chat with him. It seemed wherever we went, we always bumped into someone who knew Mo. And the more that I encountered it, the more I came to admire that about him.

The actions of other people reveal to you what you yourself are or are not doing. And one thing my friendship with Mo revealed about myself was that I seldom made the effort to connect with other people. I liked the way that people were always happy to see Mo, and that he was always just as eager to connect with them. Something about that was appealing to me. I’d get snapshots of people’s stories from snippets of conversation or from asking him what the relation was with those people.

It’s been a handful of years, but I myself am now trying to be more intentional in connecting to the people around me. I do have competent levels of social and conversation skills, but I am also naturally introverted. The idea of talking to someone with no real reason to talk to them still gives an anxiety rush every now and again. It’s taken me a while to get comfortable with the idea that you don’t need a reason to talk to them other than choosing to be curious about them.

I confess that for some time I could only initiate talking to people if they had a dog with them (I really like dogs) or if they had a noticeable characteristic about them, like a tattoo or unique hair colour, that I could comment on. It took me a couple months before I felt comfortable asking “how’s your day going?” to the dog-less, tattoo-less guy waiting for the elevator with me.

Though this hasn’t been an exercise without its own learning curve. For instance, it’s taken me longer than I care to admit to realize that if someone doesn’t want to talk to me that’s not about me. I would (and still sometimes do) overanalyze if I’ve committed some sort of grievous faux pas. Though hindsight’s revealed that it’s a case of some people just don’t want to talk, and that’s normal.

Most of the people I’ve “interrupted” (if you will), I’ve yet to see again. But already I’ve found positive changes in myself from undertaking this exercise. I have a greater appreciation for the people I meet; I learn things (whether trivial or personal) that I didn’t know before; and I tend to have a more positive outlook on people in general. The last one surprised me—I didn’t think this exercise would influence my already mostly-neutral outlook on humanity.

I’m nowhere close to having had the number of meaningful connections that I witnessed while being out walking with Mo. But in the end, it’s not about how many people know you as you go about your business. It’s about small moments of connection, about the invitation to vulnerability, and the ability to forge understanding between strangers. It’s about meeting them with the intentions of “I see you. I don’t know you, but I care about your story. Even if it’s just for this moment, and even if we never meet again.”

Calgary prides itself on being a big city with a small-town feel, and I think we’ve lost a little bit of that. There are a lot of communities, whether geographical or organizational, that have strong bonds, but I think Calgary’s lost its overall affability towards strangers. I sincerely believe that we want to keep that small-town feel, we have to take a step out of our comfort zones, overcome a little anxiety, and once again start talking to strangers.

So, next time you’re at the bus stop, in line at the bank, or shopping at the mall, why not take a moment to ask the person beside you, “How’s your day going?” You might be surprised at how open they are for a chat.