Why Talk To Strangers?

Dr. Elicia Nademin, Ph.D., ABPP
ABPP Early Career Psychologist Ambassador
Board Certified Psychologist, Author, Entrepreneur

Do you ever wonder why so many people avoid talking to strangers? Do you wish you, your clients, or people you care about were better at interacting with strangers in everyday life? Believe it or not, connecting with strangers is one of my favorite things to do in life! There is an adventure, an innocence, a romantic notion, if you will, around talking to strangers that is unmatched anywhere else in life. Each connection could potentially change your life…or not. You’ll never know if you don’t take a chance and try. Since launching my business in the Caribbean in 2016, I have met some of my now-best friends and business contacts while traveling the world. I’ve helped people feel seen and laugh who may otherwise have felt disconnected or alone, and I’ve giggled through magical moments I co-created thanks to generous spirit and connection with strangers in time. Talking to strangers has been so life-changing for me, and yet people are so weary of it that I decided to write a book on the topic in hopes of helping others develop a comfort and passion for doing so.

In November 2019, I launched Don’t Be A Stranger: Creating Connections & Memorable First Impressions in Everyday Life, in which I break down simple strategies for creating memorable moments anywhere you go. So many people fear talking to strangers, avoid leaving their homes, or decline invitations to events where they might feel uncomfortable. These fears can be so debilitating that the idea of practicing a new approach can be quite off-putting. However, practicing effective verbal and non-verbal communication micro-skills can have invaluable implications for personal, professional, romantic, or passing encounters. You might be thinking, “but I’m fine in my bubble. I was taught never to talk to strangers.” I’d argue “always talk to strangers…[and] practice positively engaging everyone, not because a person deserves it or the event demands it but because you choose to carry yourself as such.” Presenting as more engaging and inviting of interactions with strangers contributes to a warmer, kinder social environment. This, in effect, helps create space for others to feel more emotionally safe in interacting and sharing with you. While this does not guarantee compatibility or a lasting connection, it does allow for more favorable and memorable first impressions and more enjoyable, fleeting moments in time.

Many of us know that the why of avoidance is often fear; fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of uncertainty, or fear of obligation. Did you know, though, that avoidance of our fears is often the very maintaining factor of fear? In fact, overcoming fears involves engaging in habits and behaviors that confront the very situations we fear to reinforce a message of safety and success, exposure and response prevention if you will. What if I told you that making subtle changes in your presentation might completely change how others respond to you or put others at greater ease around you…would it matter? Would you consider changing? In Don’t Be A Stranger, I share personal anecdotes of how I overcame interpersonal barriers in my own life to hone impression-management skills, inspiring more memorable, fleeting moments and in some cases meaningful, lasting relationships along the way. To think of the influence you have in this area is empowering and exhilarating.

Strategies for interacting more favorably with strangers are so straight forward that they’re easy to take for granted, yet powerful in creating lasting impressions. For example, have you ever considered the implications of different types of eye contact, tone of voice, use of inflection, compliments, resting facial expressions, body posturing, positioning in a room, and even choice of attire on first impressions or connections with strangers? Even subtle changes in these and other areas can dramatically affect new patterns of relating that foster warmer, more inviting connections. If you present as warmer or more inviting of interactions with strangers, others are more likely to engage positively and in kind. In so doing, a greater sense of joy and excitement may be experienced all around.

One of the simplest ways to practice new skills of relating is to do so in new, unfamiliar environments far from home where you’re unlikely to return. In so doing, you reduce some of the controllable elements of anticipated judgment. Don’t get me wrong, you may still fear judgement, but the implications of that judgement are less pronounced since you’re unlikely to see the people there again (unless the experiences were so fabulous you choose to). If you never expect to see a person again, you are less likely to worry about the impact of failed or awkward initial impressions.

Another factor that greatly affects whether memorable moments are fostered or not is the attitude with which one approaches interactions with strangers, whether at networking functions, airports, the grocery store, or holiday parties with acquaintances or unfamiliar others. Upholding a positive attitude when considering new interactions, especially when aligned with warm facial expressions, can result in notably more memorable interactions and connections. In fact, adopting an attitude of curiosity and enthusiasm for adventure around any new experience can be life-changing. Engaged facial expressions, reflecting an excitement for what each interaction with new strangers might offer, welcome joy and fun into day-to-day interactions!

Developing comfort and skill around talking to strangers (and enjoying it!) can help enhance professional confidence, interviewing skills, networking skills, flirting, and simply engage more fun! Where might skills for talking to strangers come in handy? High school students may use them in refining communication and impression-management skills; college students may practice skills to position themselves better for internships, job or graduate school interviews. Graduate and medical students benefit exponentially as they are constantly exposed to (and often evaluated by) strangers in school, on rotations, and as they proceed through academic and professional stages or as they start a new job. Sales and marketing professionals or people working in the service industry benefit from strategies for leaving brief encounters with more favorable first impressions, which can certainly affect profitability! Truly, anyone providing a service can benefit from tools for refining communication with strangers, given the critical impact of enhancing rapport with others to effect a more successful social environment.

You might be wondering why this matters if you’re content, introverted, have “enough friends,” or simply don’t see the value in meeting more strangers. For years I’ve studied suicide research and interventions. I’m sure you’re aware that loneliness is a key element in depression, but did you know that a lack of social connectedness is a key predictor of suicide risk? Whether for you or someone you might know, recognizing the importance of a sense of belonging and helping to foster social connectedness can be life-saving. Renowned Suicidologist Dr. Thomas Joiner and author of the Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicidal Behavior in fact found three key components to be highly predictive of suicide in his influential work “Why People Die By Suicide” (Joiner, 2005). Specifically, he identified thwarted belongingness (along with perceived burdensomeness and capability to suicide) as factors that together lead to suicide attempts. What better way to enhance a sense of belongingness than by broadening our social networks and improving the very skills that help us to connect with others. I caution you, to do so we may have to “do it scared,” to overcome social fear, as so many people are afraid. That fear comes in forms that sound like, “I don’t wanna’s” or “I have enough friends.” Sometimes it sounds like “I’m too busy” or predictions that we’ll have nothing in common with whoever we might meet. Let’s help one another experience the power of connectedness.

The goal of refining skills for interacting with strangers isn’t to win everyone over but to create more extraordinary and memorable moments in life, to show curiosity into the gift that each moment might hold. I’m a firm believer that the Universe makes no mistakes, and each moment and interaction holds a lesson of what you may learn to do more or less of. What if we each commit to looking curiously for the gifts, meanwhile treating others with more civility and kindness? The world would simply be a nicer place to live. We would be a part of the change we’d love to see, and frankly, it would be easier and more fun along the way! So, whether you’re at the coffee shop, a concert, a store, the airport or out of town, consider next time your influence in cultivating connections with strangers (who could be more!) anywhere you go, whether for personal growth, professional gain, laughs, or simply co-creating moments of joy for you and others!

If you’d like to read more on Dr. Nademin’s book or share it with clients or loved ones, you can find her on Amazon by searching Don’t Be A Stranger by Elicia Nademin in paperback or Kindle ebook forms, or ask your local bookstore to order on your behalf!

References

Joiner, T.E. (2005). Why people die by suicide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nademin, M.E. (2010). Don’t Be A Stranger: Creating Connections & Memorable First Impressions in Everyday Life. Scottsdale, AZ: M. Elicia Nademin, Ph.D., LLC.

Nademin, M.E., Jobes, D.A., Pflanz, S.E., Jacoby, A.M., Ghahramanlou-Holloway, M., Campise, R., Joiner, T. Wagner, B.M., & Johnson, L. (2008). An investigation of interpersonal-psychological variables in Air Force suicides: A controlled-comparison study. Archives of Suicide Research, 12, 309-326.

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