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?

I do not believe that introversion is a real personality trait

The number of people who will tell you they are introverts is astonishing. You can talk to the most dynamic, engaging person in the world–someone with thousands of friends, who goes to parties every night–and he’ll tell you, “Oh, I actually find it hard to talk to people. And I usually prefer to be alone. I’m kind of an introvert.”

The truth is, everyone sometimes finds it hard to talk to people and everyone sometimes wants to be alone. The charmer who hops effortlessly from party to party is a myth: even within the maelstrom, there is awkwardness and loneliness.

When you read online about introversion and extroversion, it will focus on “energy.” Interacting with people imparts energy to introverts and drains energy from extroverts. But, in my life, there’s pretty much no activity that gives me energy. I wake up with a certain amount of it. Then I run down throughout the day until I finally fall asleep. All activity costs effort. Some things cost less than others (TV costs less than reading; going hungry costs more than eating), but nothing happens automatically.

If I didn’t do things just because they “drained energy” from me, then I would never do anything other than sleep.

That’s why the concept of introversion rang true to me for so long. I was like, “Wow, that dinner party really wore me out. I never want to talk to anyone again.” Because the truth was that social interaction did drain me more than most activities. The problem was that I never figured out why it was so draining.

It’s just like how some people find swimming really tiring…because they have a terrible technique that dissipates all their kinetic energy. If they had better form, swimming would become much less tiring (though it would never cease to require some effort, of course).

The reason I was drained by social interaction was because I was really bad at it.

I required huge amounts of alcohol to talk to strangers…so much alcohol that even though I met many people, I was never sure how it happened. And since social interaction was such a black box (input alcohol, output human connection), when I was sober, I was just as clueless as ever. Whenever I went to a party or gathering that was largely filled with people I didn’t know, I’d lurk on the fringes or disappear to smoke cigarettes by myself (I told myself I was “recharging”). And when I’d come home after a gathering, I’d feel so exhausted. I’d sit at home and tell myself that I disliked other people…that their conversation was so shallow and they were so plastic and what was the point of small talk anyway and that all I needed were a few close friends because who needs a horde of fake, surface-level acquaintances anyway?

If you’d asked me then, I’d probably have said that I was an introvert.

I mean, people make this distinction between people who are shy and who want to be social, and the “real” introverts. But I definitely thought I was one of the real ones. I enjoyed spending time by myself. To this day, I have no problem with not seeing another human being for a day and generally feel few pangs of acute loneliness when I am by myself. And being around people was very exhausting for me. I dreaded it, and I frequently cancelled or minimized my social engagements by telling myself, “Oh, I just need to be myself today.”

But then I stopped drinking, and, by and by, I made a very concerted effort to learn how to talk to people. I won’t say that I am a dynamo of wit and charm. In fact, part of the learning process involved letting go of this idea that social interaction involves holding forth and entertaining other people. But I do pretty well. I can sometimes talk to strangers (a thing that few people, every very charismatic people, are truly good at doing) and am pretty good at talking to casual acquaintances.

And, surprise, I enjoy social situations much more than I ever did before. I am much less likely to need to go off by myself to “recharge.” But nothing happened to my personality. I still feel pretty much the same inside. I just learned a few really simple things that smooth over social interactions and then I consciously practiced them until they became easier (though they’re still not quite second nature).

I was telling a friend about this, and she was like, “But some people just know how to do all these things. Some people just know how to start conversations and keep them going. Some people just know what to say…”

Well, yeah, but so what? It’s the same process as anything. A kid becomes a pro basketball player because when he was eight years old, he happened to be a little better than everyone on the team, so the coach gave him more playing time, which lead to him getting more practice, which led to him improving faster than everyone else, which lead to him becoming the star of the next team, and so on. A tiny initial difference in skills is translated, over twenty years, into a huge final difference.

The same is true with social skills. Kids who are just a bit friendlier in grade school acquire more friends, gain more confidence, practice their social skills more, etc, etc, until they turn into adults who are seen as “extroverted.”*

But social interaction isn’t supposed to come about as a result of good skills. It’s supposed to arise as a spontaneous connection: souls calling out to each other in sympathy. The result is that we essentialize social outcomes (“Oh, I find it hard to talk to people because I’m an introvert”) rather than looking at them as things we can improve (“Oh, I find it hard to talk to people because I never know what to say when there’s a lull in the conversation. Why don’t I just sit down right now and think of five things to say, so I’ll always have them ready…”)

I know that people will read this and say, “Oh, Rahul’s experience is not my experience. I’m a real introvert.” And that’s absolutely fine. Actually, it’s shockingly presumptuous for me to say that I don’t believe in peoples’ self-analysis of their own personality traits and desires.

And believe me, if you came up to me and said that you were an introvert, I would never disagree with you or ask you to change. So let’s take questions of identity and leave them to one side. People can continue to self-describe as introverts if they want to, and if they’re really satisfied with how they are, then that’s great. But when people come up to me and say, “Oh, I wish I was the kind of person who could talk to people easily” or “I wish I was the kind of person who could make lots of friends” then I’m like…well…you can be.

*Although if you talk to really charming people, you’d be surprised at how often they’ve put some amount of conscious study into developing their charm