Posted by: lornasass | December 1, 2011

DO TALK TO STRANGERS

Some "strangers" built the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo by Lorna Sass

Yes, you read it right.

Who ever came up with the idea of teaching children not to talk to strangers?

Trouble is, this advice is based on fear and most people are good.

So in defense against that very small number of people who might do us harm, we learn at a very early age to never talk to strangers.  Then as adults, even though we have judgment and choice, we unthinkingly stick to this constricting habit and miss out on a lot of fun.

I started talking to strangers many years ago when working alone writing cookbooks was driving me a little nuts.  I started out real safe by talking to NYC bus drivers.  They were happy to chat when stopped at red lights, and got to find out what it was like driving a bus all day.  This conversation invariably left me feeling grateful to them for doing the good job they did. I also was reminded of my own good luck–that I had so much more freedom and flexibility in my schedule–not to mention that I didn’t have to sit in a bus for 8 hours and avoid running down J-walkers and taxi cabs that cut me off. 

Recently I started chatting with some Con Ed men and thanked them for keeping the water flowing and the electricity coming into my apartment.  They seemed surprised and amused, and I went on my way feeling grateful that I’m not using a deafening jack-hammer to tear up the streets and working six feet under in all kinds of weather.  It looks like a nasty job, though they always appear good humored and friendly about it.

For years I saw a strange looking person working in the token booth at my local subway stop.  I had occasion to speak to her a few weeks ago when I lost my Metro card and she was so sweet and compassionate that I now stop by and say “hello” whenever I see her.  This brief exchange makes my day so much better.  It wakes me up to my good fortune:  I get to go some place interesting while she continues to sit in the little booth.

On a crowded subway car a few days ago, there was an announcement to “Give your seat to the elderly or infirm.”  I was very pleased to hear this good advice and asked the young man standing next to me what he thought.  After removing one ear bud, he told me:  “I always give up my seat to old people and also to pretty girls.  That’s the way I was brought up.”  We then chatted a little more about his mother and I felt so warmly towards him that by the time I needed to get off, I wanted to give him a hug.  Instead I told him, “I’m really glad to have met you.”

I hope this little blog post will inspire you to speak to strangers and that you’ll let me know what happens by commenting on this post.

What you are likely to learn, as I have through life coaching and on the streets and subways of Manhattan, is that the whole notion of strangers is based on an illusion.  The other is us and we are them.  We are more alike than we are different And we’re in this thing called life together.


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Responses

  1. Lorna, you are so right! I talk to strangers when ever I’m out and about. As a working studio artist the majority of my time is spent alone and/or in my head. So it’s imperative that I find someone, somewhere, to interact with. It takes the built up pressure off.

  2. Wonderful post, Lorna. While walking with my two-year-old in my Bronx neighborhood, I make a point of greeting people as they walk by. A simple “Good morning!” from a passerby can make such a big difference in an otherwise ordinary day at the bus stop.

    Now my son does the same and I must admit that it brings up a little pang of fear. The conditioning from my old childhood rears up and makes me wonder if I’m doing him a disservice.

    Then I quickly remember that I want him to feel safe in the world. And the best way to do that is show him it’s OK to engage and connect with others.

    • Madhu, where I live, no one ever says ‘Hello’ or ‘Good morning’ so, whenever I go to a nearby park – 6 miles down the road, out of London, and someone greets me like this, I am in awe and I take it as a sign that I am out of a big, cold, unfriendly city.

      Now, when I go there with my dog, I try to make eye contact and smile as much as I can without it being too imposing, thinking that maybe people feel the same warmth I feel when someone says a simple ‘Good morning’ to me.

  3. Talking to strangers is one way of making sure that fewer people are estranged from one another. When I was a child, my father struck up cheerful playful conversations with the person behind the counter — and perhaps one person in a hundred didn’t want to play. I practiced this the other morning in Manhattan by saying a fervent “Good morning! How are you!” to people at work hosing down the sidewalk in front of the building in / for which they worked. They knew they didn’t know me, I think, but were cheered by “a perfect stranger” recognizing them as someone worthy of notice, not anonymous, not socially inferior. “Son, if you can’t make money, make friends,” still has to be the best advice ever given . . . and making other people feel good has to be one of the nicest and easiest gifts we can give. Some people aren’t ready for it, but most humans hunger to be noticed in affectionate ways. This tendency does slow me down when I am walking with the Beloved (who has a more brisk pace than I do) but she is a forgiving soul.

  4. If it weren’t for talking to strangers, none of us would have friends, and all of us would be alone. I completely ignore the “rule” that tells me not to talk to strangers. It’s pointless and isolationist. Thanks for the post!

  5. My cousins recently visited New York. They were delighted to find out how friendly people were. . . something I’ve treasured about New York.

    • Yes, I always wonder where the idea of New Yorkers not being friendly came from. They may be in a rush, but they’re almost always willing to help. I make it a point to ask tourists if they need help (the map, a camera, and a puzzled look always gives them away) just to give them a good vibe about New Yorkers.

      • That’s very nice of you, Lorna. Many years ago I visited Montreal and I have to say that the most vivid memory is of the young people who volunteered in the summer to give their time to tourists and visitors so they don’t feel lost in a strange town. I was greeted by smiling faces and offered information, directions and was encouraged to ask anything that I would have trouble with. They made me feel welcome and safe, especially since I was travelling alone, without my family.

  6. Lorna, thanks for writing and sharing this thoughts. This is really inspiring and sounds to me as an invitation to live community. I also feel now that New York is a safe a warm place to make friends everywhere. Cheers! M

  7. I’m exactly like you, Lorna. I talk to strangers – a lot – but I only do it because, to me, they are just people I didn’t have the opportunity to be introduced to beforehand – so I don’t really perceive them as strangers, just people.

    I live in London, UK, which is an alienating place as you can imagine – not many people would strike a conversation with you if they didn’t meet you somewhere else other than in the street or at the bus stop.

    According to my teenage son, I am the world’s most embarassing mother because I ‘talk too much’ to people I don’t know. I have to mention, this is my way of keeping ‘sane’ in a city as big as London where not many people know me so, instead of going round all sort of places and trying to spend all my time ‘keeping in touch’ with people I wouldn’t normally have much in common with, I just prefer a quick exchange of ideas where and when possible.

    I know everyone at the local petrol station and I take pleasure in making small ‘donations’ of chocolate to staff around Easter and Christmas – they are very pleased and extremely surprised – the look on their face is priceless.

  8. It seems simple math: if we all spoke to the “strangers,” there would be no more strangers. Love, the old song tells us, is just around the corner: friendship is, too.

  9. I agree totally. I’ve always spoken to everyone. My children grew up watching this, and did the same. I think it teaches inclusiveness.

  10. I talk to strangers when I am feeling open and contented – when I am stressed or “suspicious” feeling, it doesn’t happen. This can vary day to day or week to week. I look forward to the day that I am evolved to such a degree that I have no suspicions or fear around strangers, and can be open and talkative with everybody. I have been “burned” and taken advantage of in the past when trying to help somebody, so I have to learn my limits and set appropriate boundaries, for sure. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    • And thank you for your thoughtful comment.


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