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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Why We Should Talk to Strangers

Last week I was walking down a busy Manhattan street. At a crossing while waiting for the walk signal I gently turned to the woman next to me who was wearing a colorful and interesting outfit, smiled, and here's how the conversation went:

Me: "I like your outfit". "It's good to see people wearing color as we get in into Spring".
Woman: She didn't say a thing verbally but gave me a look as if to say "Why are you talking to me?!" If you come any closer I'll kill you".
Me: "Geez, sorry to bother you. "You know, it's actually OK to be friendly to strangers."
Woman: "F. U. A-- hole".

We then carried on with our separate commutes. I walked away feeling a bit shocked, disappointed in fellow humans, but ultimately not too surprised by what seemed like a disproportionate reaction on her part to what was a well-intended, friendly, and innocent comment by me. Similarly, not too long ago a client of mine told me how she was recently at a train station waiting and saw a gentleman next to her looking at the subway map trying to figure out his route. She asked him if he need help. His reply: "Mind your own business".

These sorts of things happen all the time I'm sure. Sometimes such reactions might actually be warranted. The first scenario wasn't though about an obnoxious guy hitting on a woman and said woman being tired of guys doing so. And this certainly wasn't a case of a creepy and offensive looking, acting, or smelling person approaching a stranger on the street. I am none of those. Matter of fact, I was dressed neatly for work, well-groomed, carrying a leather briefcase bag, and gave her a friendly smile. The second situation was similar. Far be it for me to diagnose these people or what might be going through their heads and why they may have been so unfriendly, mean and nasty, but we can learn from these experiences.

I get it. New York and other major cities are big, filled with lots of people, and ripe for trouble. I've met countless people who tell me they are told before moving to New York, "Don't talk to strangers" or "Just keep to yourself". They then comply with the credo and conduct themselves in a way where not only do they not talk to strangers - even friendly strangers, but also have an edgy, feisty, and nasty persona. One that screams: "Don't come near me!" It not only perpetuates the myth that New Yorkers aren't friendly, but it supports and makes it even stronger. I don't commit crimes so I don't really know the answer to this, but do criminals choose victims based on whether they talk to them or not prior? My guess is probably not. Nor am I convinced that talking to strangers will lead to crime.

In light of recent events in Baltimore, it's especially important for people to smile more, reach out to others (even those who may have a different skin color), and generally be decent humans to one another. Rather than having the mindset that people are inherently bad, pose a threat, or might do harm, adopt one that assumes people are generally pleasant and well-intended. Instinct and your fear response will kick in if someone isn't pleasant and is clearly offensive. But until then, a smile can mean so much. It can be disarming, send a message of warmth, and reassurance that things are OK. A friendly hello or comment such as mine can start to bridge two people from different walks of life, genders, or cultures who might never ordinarily connect with each other.

So next time someone approaches you with a smile and says something good natured to you on the street, are you going to be a standoffish and rude person who rejects or the affable one who sees opportunities to connect where there are differences? Be the latter and you'll be doing your part to make society just a tad bit more peaceful.

For more tips on living a happy and fearless life, check out my book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.

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