How Talking to Strangers on a Daily Basis Got Me Robbed.
Our monthly challenge in June was talking to strangers… and if that doesn’t sound creepy enough, let me add that talking to one of those strangers got me robbed.
But let’s start from the beginning — from the very reason why we thought that talking to strangers on a daily basis was a good idea to start with.
Do you ever find yourself itching to talk to random people on the train, in a café or on the street?
A lady sitting next to you on the tube, wearing a pair of unique earrings you would love to buy yourself, if only you had the guts to ask her where she’d got them?
Or a woman in a park, reading a book you just finished reading — wouldn’t it be cool to exchange opinions on that controversial final statement the author made?
Or a man in Pret a Manger, sketching a couple sitting a few tables away from him. You’d love to tell him how talented he is and how looking at his artistic sensitivity and observational skills slowly materialising on a piece of paper, totally made your day.
Or, that handsome guy you crossed paths with three times now, as you were taking a lunchtime walk around that little park next to your office. He smiled at you and you’d love to smile back and say ‘hi’, and see if there’s any promise behind the smile…
But you don’t, because — for some reason — talking to those we come across as we go about our daily lives became difficult … and perhaps seen as, to an extent, weird.
We overshare and easily connect with strangers on social media, but we often cannot make eye contact with a passerby.
The reason why the examples above are very specific is because they are real. I often find myself itching to talk to unknown people around me; and I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who craves connecting with those outside of their usual circle of friends.
Like me, you also must know some incredible stories about how talking to a random person changed someone’s course of life. Two of my friends got married to a person they talked to on public transport; one met their fiancé at a concert; one of my friends met their business partner in a park, while another met theirs at a large dinner party where they had to go out of their way to talk to others. I myself met many of my friends, one amazing mentor, one potential work partner, and an ex I dated longest in very random places. So, this often leaves me thinking —
How many amazing people am I missing on a daily basis by being too shy to connect with them?
And so, as we approached another month of our Twelve-Month Journey — the 6th month marking the very middle of the year — I thought that after a few months of inner search and spiritual cleansing, perhaps it was a good moment to look outwards and try to connect with the world around us a bit more.
Funnily enough, initially Drew wasn’t very keen on the idea and it took me a while to convince him to subscribe to the challenge (sorry Drew ;)), but then, when it actually came to it, I ended up being the one who was much less thrilled about the whole thing. For once, it was Drew sending me timely reminders to keep up the challenge.
Our June challenge made me realise that I’m actually quite reserved and perhaps insecure in situations where I don’t feel empowered to behave in a confident manner. I can be extremely confident at work, having no problem whatsoever when talking to C-Suites, directors and senior managers at large consultancies, presenting in front of big groups, or networking with people I’d usually shy away from talking to in the ‘real world’.
But in private life — as last month has shown me — interacting with others makes me feel quite nervous. My neurotic, ever-questioning mind makes me worry about what others think of me, whether I’m cool, clever, funny, pretty, approachable enough for them to want to interact with me at all. I often naturally interpret somebody’s low mood, that may or may not be related to what I’ve said or done, as an indication of their aversion toward me. The situation gets even worse when I actually care about someone — these thoughts can get quite obsessive then and I cannot disengage from them until something shows me that I was wrong in the first place.
For that reason, I’m rarely the one starting a conversation with strangers, or joining a crowd of people, though I’m always happy when someone initiates contact with me. Only on Friday, a random American guy came up to me as I was washing cherries in the kitchen sink at work, to simply share a fun fact about cherries. We then talked a bit longer, about this and that, and then simply went back to work. Did I find him weird or intrusive? Not at all — the very reverse, and that little chat was a much welcomed break. Why do I, then, think that others would think of me as a nuisance, should I approach them?
The double standards by which we treat ourselves vs. others are truly mind-blowing.
Another thing that ‘speaking to strangers’ on a daily basis has taught me, is that a big reason why I drink alcohol in social situations is precisely this sort of mild social anxiety. I do love a glass of good wine, but a glass is usually all I need, to feel pleasantly tipsy without losing control of my behaviour. Do I ever stop at one glass when going out? Of course not. Partly because — as an extremely individualistic person — I simply really enjoy being a part of the (drinking) group, but partly because I fear that by not drinking I’d be considered boring and I wouldn’t be able to keep up with everyone’s tipsy-joyful spirits. Food for thought and perhaps a prompt to re-read my ‘Dry February’ “chronicles”.
All of this is great feedback, especially for someone who used to think of herself as an extreme extrovert.
Now, after working as a psychologist for more than three years and having done some real soul-searching (often as part of our monthly challenges), I think I might be more of an extroverted introvert, who loves human interaction and gets anxious when spending too much time alone, but who also struggles feeling comfortable when surrounded by too many people I don’t know or people who intimidate me.
At the same time, on the 26th day of the June challenge, it feels almost unnatural not to aim to have a longer chat with whoever I have a chance to talk to throughout the day. Though it may not be within my nature to try to actively chat to strangers, moving forward I will definitely be more inclined to connect with those that make that half-step toward me — may that be a smile, eye contact, or any other indirect invitation to connect.
If nothing else, it makes going about the day much less boring and lonely than it can feel otherwise.
And now, to go back to my story of being robbed...
A few weeks ago I went to Athens with work, to attend a large conference. As I was walking to our hotel from an AirBnb I stayed in over the weekend, I saw a lady with an incredible lotus flower tattoo elegantly covering her neck. Still struggling to simply strike a conversation with strangers, I found it a great excuse to get my daily ‘stranger chat’ fix. The problem was that it also distracted me from paying attention to what was going on around me. And so, before I knew it, someone snatched my wallet from a deeply hidden inner pocket of my bag, which I discovered only when I got to the hotel. I’m sure that everyone in that posh hotel must’ve really enjoyed me blurting out a loud ‘f***k!’ when that happened.
To put it in context for you, I’d just got my wallet stolen in March and then I lost my watch on the train in May (don’t ask me how that happened…), so — to say the least —this hasn’t been the most productive time of my life, in terms of ensuring that my possessions retain their status…
But to speak of beneficial ‘practice effects’! Cancelling my cards, reporting theft at a police station, and getting over losing my wallet (as both stolen purses had massive sentimental value…), seems to have gotten easier with practice, as only a few moments after I was joking about the whole thing.
The moral of the story IS NOT to lose your possessions on a regular basis — no matter how good for your resilience that turns out to be — but to take baby steps and practice putting yourself outside your comfort zone, doing things that move you in the right direction. And that’s what July will be about – stay tuned!