Talking to Strangers


When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life – and theirs” – Kio Stark

I’ve never realised how difficult it is to talk to people until I had to start networking. I enjoy my own company and I never thought that I would need to talk to strangers. Usually, if I have to meet someone new it is by using a third party as a crutch. Only when I started working did I realise that I was missing out on business opportunities, the human need for socialising and maybe even friendships. Fortunately, I have found some practical ways to deal with my anxiety in talking to strangers and a lot of what I learnt, I learnt from Elna Shutz. She is a radio producer at Wits University and today we are going to talk about people’s general inability to talk to their fellow humans.

It’s incredible that there are so many people who have a lot of friends, who are very social friendly people, but they can’t even call the dentist and make an appointment without having a script. So a lot of us really are bad at this but as a journalist, I had to get over that incredibly quickly. So I think I have an idea of how to do this.

Were you taught to talk to strangers, or were you always good at talking to people that you’ve never met?

I am a little bizarre in that sense, maybe it’s my mother, but as long as I can remember, myself and my mother had been approached by strangers. I will stand in a grocery aisle and a woman will come up to me and say “I got divorced”, and start crying out of nowhere. Maybe I have one of those faces, but it’s always something that has been happening to me naturally. People just come up to me and want to talk, so I have had to adapt.  I also realised that people are interesting and I want to talk to people despite that awkwardness that we all feel.

Do you also go out and talk to other people as you’ve been approached in a shop?

Not to that extent. I do try to make a concerted effort to recognise the people around us. And that is something that so many of us are just missing out on. It’s the little things, like when you are on the train and someone sits next to you. You can say hello. You’re not proposing to them, you’re just recognising their presence. I make sure that I can just chat to people. Often nothing comes of it but a lot of times you have conversations you never thought you would.

There’s a TED talks video by Kio Stark who wrote the book, “When Strangers Meet”. She is really into talking to people that she doesn’t know. She believes that you should be able to talk to anyone and everyone, do you agree with that?

I think yes. This idea that the other, the stranger, is some kind of threat to us, is unhelpful. What good is it doing you? It’s just robbing you of an interaction that you could have. If you don’t feel like an interaction today, I promise you that there’s a kind way to stop and not to talk to someone. Most of the time I think you should be trying to explore the really different, interesting people around you.

Why should I go out and speak to somebody on the train that I don’t know?

It is probable that all of your friends and your family think relatively similar to you. The person next to you on the train is going to be completely different. You never know what kind of openness and even fun or strange connection you might have with someone you never met. There really is a kind of honesty because there are no strings attached and after 5 minutes it will be like “Ciao, have a nice life”. There’s a freedom to do that. More than that for me, it makes me feel connected. It makes me feel like I’m not just living this tiny life where I’m surrounded by people but I’m always lonely. It really makes us feel like we are part of humanity. And the more you do it, the more you realise, you don’t actually have to be afraid.

South Africa is a very diverse country. When talking to people that you don’t know, you actually open up misunderstandings about others; biases that you might have that you don’t even know about. Conversations can break that open. It can open up what you believe about people and connect you to a larger group than just your family or the area where you are comfortable in.

The one place where that is easiest to understand is when there’s something funny that happens, and you turn around and you catch someone’s eye. It doesn’t matter who that person is, funny is funny.

Ett Venter is particularly good at talking to people just out of the blue. This is from an interview with  him:

You said you’re pretty good at talking to strangers. How do you do it?

I only do it because I desensitised myself from being afraid of people. That’s 100% the way I can do it. I used to hate speaking and have two people looking at me. That moment was awful. So I realised that I can approach people and force myself into that situation. Every time I do it, it will be a little bit easier and then I won’t be scared anymore. That’s what I did for a couple of years.

Is it not awkward or embarrassing at some point?

It’s not embarrassing. Sometimes it’s awkward because the person that you approach isn’t anticipating it. It’s not common for people to just approach you randomly and start a conversation. It’s uncommon. And people know that, but I don’t care.

Why would you want to talk to strangers?

I wouldn’t necessarily just approach somebody to spark a random conversation. I have but I have always done it as a social experiment. One day, I was working at a coffee shop and I noticed a girl sitting on her own at a table, and I walked up to her, pulled up a chair at her table and sat down with her. I didn’t even introduce myself. I didn’t even ask if I could sit down. I said “I’ve got this theory that there’s a lot of conversation that we always want to take place but we don’t pursue it because we’re too afraid of how the people we speak to, would engage. So that’s what I am doing here right now. I just want to know how your life is”. She completely opened up to how she wants to go pro in tennis but she’s also afraid because the likelihood of making it is really little. She opened up to me about that.

What’s your comment on that recording?

The one thing that I completely agree with is that you don’t have to do this just for the sake of it. It doesn’t have to be this awkward thing. Start a conversation that you want to have. Start a conversation that has a point. Whether that is as simple as saying, “Hey, nice dress, where did you get that?” Don’t only do this because you’re scared of it. I promise you, there’s something in any person you meet, that will be fascinating to you. And I love that Ett actually saw that he had this fear and tried to open up. I had a really funny experience once, where I was sitting, minding my own business and someone came up to me and chatted to me when I was clearly in my own sphere. I was a bit careful. Is this person trying to sell me something? Is he trying to hit on me? Does he want something? After a couple of minutes of talking, I realised that he was doing exactly what Ett was doing. He was just really scared and wanted to try to talk to someone. In the end, we had this long chat about movies and life and God and all of these beautiful things and then he said “Shot, nice to meet you” and he walked away. If I had shut him down in the first three seconds and been like “No, thank you”, when he said, “Can I talk to you?”, that would have never happened. I’ve had that experience so many I times. I’ve had times where I have cried and a stranger has come up to me and changed my day and given me comfort. A complete stranger. So that is just some examples to show you that it doesn’t have to be this strange fear that you’re overcoming. Even though that is what you end up doing.

Would you say that the fear is actually baseless? Are we scared of each other for no real reason?

Yes, and I think that fear comes because we focus on ourselves so much. The only reason we’re scared of strangers is because we care what they think.

Don’t you think it also comes from how we’ve been raised? “Do not talk to strangers” is something that all kids are grown up with and that develops into a fear that gets justified.

I do think there’s that but I also think we’re using it as an excuse. Maybe you think, “What if I make a fool of myself?”, “What if it goes wrong?”, or “What if we have nothing to talk about?”, or “What if they think I’m creepy?”. All of that stuff is baseless. If that person is making you feel uncomfortable or if you have nothing to talk about, just walk away.

I’ve been raised to have a distrust of strangers, and I really had to work hard to break that down. I’m so happy I did because it has taught me confidence. Every conversation out of the blue where at first I’m dead scared of talking to this guy, I’ve been surprised by realising that that person is not really as horrible as I thought he would be. It changed the way that I saw people. Now when I go to functions where I’m expected to meet new people, I’m not anymore the guy standing at the food table and finishing the pie platter. I’m actually one of those people going out and having the confidence to network, to get to know other people.

If someone tells you, “Okay, I’m keen, I want to learn. How do I get this confidence? How do I talk to someone I don’t know? I’m probably going to be rejected. I’m probably going to be looked at in a strange way, but I still want to do it. How?” Do you have some practical ways of talking to strangers?

As with so many things that are a learning curve, you probably will fail at first. You probably will be rejected and it’s better for you to realise that right now. Maybe even seek it out, like Ett sought it out. To say, “I’m gonna try this”. Sometimes people can look at you strangely or say “No, I don’t want to talk to you.”. That’s fine. There are enough strangers out there for you to keep trying. The worst that could happen is a weird look. Whoever you are, you’re probably pretty great. There’s probably something about you that is great and you can rest in your own identity. It’s okay if some random stranger doesn’t think you’re great. You’re mom probably does or your wife. This morning, I was standing in front of a class and I was really scared of talking to them. Then I just realised. “Hey Elna, you’re pretty cool, if they just stare at you, that’s okay.” That gave me the confidence to be myself. With a stranger, it’s the same thing. Also, have a purpose. Don’t just go up to somebody and be like “Hey…”. That won’t work.Unless you’re trying to hit on somebody that’s not the way to go. At a networking event, have some questions in the back of your mind like, “What did you think of the event?” or, “Where are you from?”. Keep in mind that there will be something that you and that person will have in common.

This is something that Kio Stark calls “triangulation”. You look at something mutual. As you said earlier, if there is something funny that happened, and you have that look, that knowing that we both see what’s happening here. That can trigger a conversation and you can meet someone new. Even if it is just standing in a queue and you never see that person again. Those small things really end up building your confidence. It’s making you more comfortable and convincing you that not everyone is bad.

There is definitely the aspect of “Fake it till you make it”. When you are uncomfortable and you’re approaching somebody in an uncomfortable way, they will sniff you out in a second, and you will not have a funny conversation with that person. On the other hand, when you go up to them in confidence and you sense where the conversation is going, then there’s an openness to speak and then chances are you’ll be fine.

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