The art of making friends with strangers

It was a fresh, crisp morning when I stepped out for my morning walk, a routine I started only a week ago. It’s a lovely park, perfect for pampering your senses to start the day well. A lot of people seem to think the same because the park is sprawling with walkers, joggers and yoga enthusiasts.

Sometimes, while snaking my way through the jogger’s track, I notice these early morning walkers, unobserved from the pool of my anonymity. Most of them look 50+ to me, the younger generation preferring their air-conditioned gyms and cult centres to an open air park (nothing against them!). The old uncles and aunties have a comfortable familiarity, waving to each other and stopping to exchange a few words on arthritis or their grandson’s wedding to an American girl or how the weather is not their friend. It makes me smile. But I keep that smile to myself.

When I walk the path, often I find myself shying away from eye contact with others coming from the opposite direction. The minute I spot somebody strutting towards me, my eyes turn to the sky, the trees, persons far away or fall to the ground. This instinctive behaviour fills me up with wonder. Why am I so afraid to make eye contact with strangers? Or to exchange a friendly greeting? What would happen if I smiled at them and said “hello”? Would the Earth open up and swallow me? Would the world gaze at me in wonder and tag me as a freak? Or do I fear the lack of reciprocation? An awkward moment of friendliness that goes ignored or rejected because this is not normal in our country?

Anyway, so one day I decided to conquer my hesitation. A sweet looking old man was walking at a snail’s pace towards me. I looked into his face when we were about two metres apart, gave him my warmest smile and wished “good morning.” To my great astonishment (I don’t know why I expect the worst), he beamed at me and sent a jovial “good morning” back at me. Oh my! These things happen? I was pleasantly surprised. After that, every time I crossed this man, I would smile or nod and he responded just the same.

This was a lesson for me. And made me delve deeper into our ‘groupist’ tendencies, where we restrict our communication only to those people that are known to us, largely ignoring even the presence of others. What stops us from befriending or even acknowledging a stranger? Why this awkwardness? Why do we limit ourselves to only those who are familiar?

It’s possible that we overthink the act of approaching a stranger and striking a conversation. And the more we think about it, the more time we get to create excuses to keep ourselves shut to the possibility, and walk away. It takes such an effort to deliver a compliment to a passer-by on the street or the person in the queue before us.

We forget that sometimes a conversation with a complete stranger can be utterly enriching. Anonymity can help people discover deep connections or liberate a pent up mind. A random, unthinking compliment can make somebody’s day. A kind act somewhere can change a life. Maybe if we move out of ourselves, we can discover what we’re truly made of.

So how do we change this? When the intention is in place, a few simple ideas can help alter our behavioural pattern when it comes to strangers.

  1. Make eye contact – Probably the hardest thing to do, but it’s a great start. When your eyes meet, you are bound to acknowledge each other’s presence, with either a smile or a nod. This could just be the starting point, with a “hello” to follow and who knows, a conversation? But yes, allow your eyes to meet and keep them there!
  2. Ask questions – On a general note, people like to talk about themselves. So be interested in who they are and ask the questions that are most appropriate or relevant to the situation. This helps a stranger warm up to you, lending you a glimpse into their lives. This also helps draw you out of your self-cent redness.
  3. Share – In return, share your stories and thoughts that could be common with your stranger friend. Common points are great conversation starters and help set both parties at ease. You may discover insights that you never thought of before and vice versa. What a pleasant exchange that would be!
  4. Relax your body language – Loosen up. The minute you do, watch the other person feel at ease too. The more relaxed you appear and feel, the more easily conversation can flow for both people.
  5. Make it a habit – To get over the inhibitions, all you have to do is practice this approach. Head out into the world with a positive feeling that everybody is your friend and has a story to tell. The more you do this, the easier it will become to make eye contact, strike up conversations, exchange anecdotes and learn new things. Perhaps make it a habit to talk to three strangers every week?

These simple acts can go a long way to nourish you. They would definitely do wonders to build your self-confidence because it takes a lot of it to reach out and open yourself up to a stranger. You have to be sure of yourself to do so. Moreover, it helps improve your communication skills and makes you a more empathetic person to other lives. And what can be a better way to widen your network of people than this – whether socially or professionally? So quit thinking and just do it. Whatever the outcome, know better than to take it personally. There is nothing to be gained or lost here. Go out there! The world is waiting to talk to you!  

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