My mother raised me to be a curious, inquisitive person. I am much more comfortable finding out about another person than talking about myself – having said that, I’ve gotten rusty.
I had the opportunity to put my post pandemic introversion to the test on my recent vacation. I went on safari in Botswana with my sister. It’s one of those trips in which you are immersed in another culture and surrounded my locals and fellow international travelers – strangers.
While I have spent a lifetime talking to strangers it can be awkward and uncomfortable – and with ever-present digital channels and the isolation we experienced during the pandemic, that interpersonal communication muscle has gotten weaker. And you know the saying, “use it or lose it.”
Writing for The Atlantic, James Hamblin, discusses the benefits of talking to strangers. He makes an important distinction between what is described as “civil inattention” – entering an elevator, for example, perhaps offering a smile or momentary eye contact with someone, making sure you don’t step on anyone’s toes, and then reverting to minding your own business. Author of the When Strangers Meet, Kio Stark, said civil inattention describes those interactions where you can actually pretend, you’re by yourself. This is the state often referred to as “alone together.” On the other hand, Stark coined “exquisite interruption” which is what can happen when you interact with a stranger. You may encounter a surprise, a feeling of connection, or the joy that comes from a human moment and puts a smile on your face.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Africa a few times and I’m always moved by the people I’ve met and their commitment to human connection. You don’t walk by someone without a hello or smile – that would be incredibly rude. As a local, Rati, said to me, her mantra is to always be present and available.
Hamblin shared a study that found that people who considered their neighbors to be friendly and trustworthy were less likely to have heart attacks. Other public-health research has shown improved moods among commuters who chat on the subway, and happiness and creativity among people who talk to strangers.
For those of you who may want to begin strengthening your strangercom muscle can consider:
- As you stroll your neighborhood make a point to say hello to those you come across and see what happens.
- Stark also recommends “triangulation” – which is simply remarking on something external to both you and the strangers – something you are both experiencing or observing. Botswana certainly offered those opportunities – “Holy smokes, did you see that elephant?! By the way, I forgot to ask, where do you call home?”
- Sometimes an observational compliment can work. Noticing a guy practicing his triple jump in the gym recently prompting me to acknowledging his strength and technique which jumpstarted a mini track and field convo.
Upon returning from my recent trip, people have asked me about my favorite moment. Was it seeing a herd of zebra, a pride of lions, or a glimpse of a White Rhino? Of course, those kinds of sightings were amazing but what will stand out for me more than anything else were the moments when I embarked on a conversation with a stranger and shared a human moment nearly 10,000 miles from home.