One of my new initiatives is to try to make more effort to talk to complete strangers

beware-of-strangersDriving across this great country of ours has (as usual) filled me with the longing to know more about the lives of the people around me. However, I face the typical problem of the traveller: there is literally no reason for me to talk to the people around me. I've become fairly good at talking to people when there's even the thinnest excuse for me to do so (I've developed a whole technique for talking to people at parties, for instance). But I've still yet to leap the toughest of social hurdles: I'm not good at talking to people in situations that aren't really social situations.

In many ways, this is only sensible. I am a very large, dark-skinned man. People don't necessarily want to talk to me on the street. Furthermore, I think that people generally have a right to not be bothered by people they don't know.

However, it does make the world feel a little insular. Under current circumstances, it's very difficult for me to ever meet people with whom I don't share at least one common connection. Because of this, my knowledge of the world is pretty insular. I tend to only know people who: a) went to college / high school with me (or are friends with someone who did); b) belong to the sci-fi or literary fiction scenes; c) have worked at the World Bank; or d) are upper-class Indian-Americans.

On occasion, I would like to at least speak to people who are none of these things. I mean, we don't have to become best friends, but it'd be good to at least hear what their voices sound like.

As such, I've started to (very cautiously) explore the possibility of speaking to people I encounter in bars, aeroplanes, museums, stores, libraries, the street, etc.

I also have yet to ever do this, but I would like to somehow figure out how to talk to the 3+ people per day who wander up to me and comment on how tall I am.

So far, the main thing I've learned from this effort is that it's best to just be observant and comment on something in the environment. Since these people are strangers, it'd be terribly creepy to ask them about their lives. But if there's something in the area that piques my interest, asking about it can often lead to some kind of conversation.

For instance, right now I am in a Super 8 in Galesford, Illinois. Prior to this, I tried to check in to the Holiday Inn Express, but I literally could not find the way inside it. Although it was right next to the freeway exit, the motel was surrounded by a high fence. The whole thing was like some cruel joke.

So when I checked into this hotel, I asked the woman at the counter about it and we had a nice chat about how the zoning board in this town is all crazy and anti-business and won't give people permission to build driveways to their businesses. Am I best friends with the lady at the counter? No. But I did learn something new.

Anyway, the reason I am posting this is to ask people for their advice. Do you ever converse with complete strangers? How do you go about it?

8 thoughts on “One of my new initiatives is to try to make more effort to talk to complete strangers

  1. debs

    I certainly don’t initiate conversation, but I’m British. I’m happy to have a natter if someone starts a conversation.

    Your description of yourself made me smile. A large, dark skinned man, eh? Bring it on, that don’t scare me.

  2. Brian Cutflower

    carry a small dog and dozens of people a day will initiate conversations with you. i only carried pan for about 15 minutes, and despite being dressed in tatters like a homeless person, multiple people talked to me, including a really nice lady who then told me about how she had been living in yosemite the past 3 years.

  3. John Arkwright

    First of all, I commend you for this exercise. I see folks on television now and then who have obviously spent nearly all their lives in an insulated environment, mostly along the east and west coast. I find them to be bizarre creatures. My relatives are hicks, so I have plenty of hick in my DNA, but I’m an educated hick, so I’m in between the worlds. I was amused when my Miami-raised creative writing teacher did not understand why a female student’s scene had the pickup pulling up outside grandma’s with the women rushing in to line up at grandma’s bathroom door and the men heading around the back of the house. And I have friends who watched in horror, along with Keith Olbermann, as Sarah Palin spoke to the owner of a turkey farm while they slaughtered turkeys in the background. I was amused. I think that understanding both sides helps in writing.

    I’d say that the typical conversation starter when you’re in a location like a restaurant or bar is the locale, itself. People in flyover country often are not rushing from one activity to another, so they don’t mind talking. It it’s a bar, maybe the atmosphere, service, etc. In addition, “Are you from here?” And, wherever they are from, “Is that a good place to be from?” “Do you like it more here?” In a bar that serves food, “What’s good here?”

    My speech teacher, back 30 years ago, said that the usual conversation starter was the weather. It seems pretty lame, but it can open up opportunities like my response, “I’m from Louisiana, so I’m used to a lot more humidity. I don’t miss it, though.” The next thing you know, the person will talk about the time they went to Louisiana or how their brother-in-law is from Louisiana. Or they might ask about how you like the place you’re from.

    I find that people from the coasts are mistaken about flyover attitudes. For instance, innovations in morality (both good and bad) start on the coasts, but the entertainment media pervades the rest of the country, so children soak up that morality and shape the next generation. Adults soak up some, as well. Further, good news is never broadcast, so I’m not surprised to hear coastal dwellers spout that attitudes about such things as race and religion and sexuality have not changed in the rest of the country since the 1950s. I don’t like the way that John Quinones goes looking for bad news in the culture (from NJ to TX)–but I recently saw some good news to many of his viewers–that was not news to the people in the middle. (However, I realize that some coastals will even think that there’s hate in this, as well.)

    Again, I commend you,


    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Thanks! This is all great advice. Yes, people in the South and Midwest don’t seem to be much behind the coasts even in terms of social acceptance type things. For instance, I am 90% sure that this cashier at a tiny little rest-top town outside Des Moines, in Iowa, was a trans woman. It was kind of astonishing, but everyone carried on their business like normal. I felt like I was the weird one for noticing.

  4. johnarkwright

    Oh, and personally, I always want to talk to folks who know about India more than is polite–though that may not be you. I’d angle to ask where you were from… and try to politely get your ethnicity out of you. And then I’d tell you about this friend I had from Madras and that friend from Delhi and a Jain that I knew and ask where you or your parents were from and what they missed about India and … and… and…

  5. MattF

    “Since these people are strangers, it’d be terribly creepy to ask them about their lives.”

    I dunno Rahul – that looks like a pretty limiting belief to me. Yeah, it can be creepy if you were to ask them something really personal like “what’s your address,” or “you have a big nose – how does it feel to have a big nose?”

    If you really are compassionate about it and truly interested in their response, you can just ask them how they are doing or how their day is going, and nobody is going to take that as creepy. Its also nice because it gives people an easy out, (ie. they can just say ‘fine’ or ‘good’), but if they are open to conversation, they will give you a little bit more info that you can then ask a followup with.

    Have you ever worked in a job where people come up to you to get something from you? Could be working in a coffee shop, or at a store of any type, or even as an example when I worked the computer help desk in Meyer Library. People come up to you, and you can be all business, or you can give them a smile and ask them about how they’re doing and how their day is going, and a surprisingly large percentage of people will open up.

    Try it next time someone comments on how tall you are – answer their comment directly, but then followup with asking them how they’re doing/how their day is going.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I wouldn’t call “How’s your day going?” an inquiry about their lives. I’d think that something like, “Where do you work?” or “What neighborhood do you live in?”, which’re pretty typical questions in many social situations, would be too forward, though.

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