Frankly, I am quite reticent about striking up conversations with strangers. On a flight for instance, I don’t usually initiate conversations with fellow passengers. I prefer immersing myself into a book or a magazine. If the stranger next to me is in a talkative mood, then I usually exchange a few initial pleasantries, wondering though when I can get back to my reading!
My guess is that a lot of you may be similar. Think about it, how many of you avoid eye contact with people in an elevator and instead focus your attention on the floor indicator?
Many of us grew up being told, “Don’t talk to strangers”! And we are probably cautioning our children in the same way.
However, can talking to people we don’t know open us to great learning and new possibilities?
Recently, I read a book by Kio Stark, When Strangers Meet, that made me reflect on how I need to behave differently.
“Talking to people who are different from us can be radically transformative. It’s the antidote to fear…When we examine our ideas about strangers, the notion that a stranger is someone to be afraid of often falls away, chalked up to childhood training in “stranger danger” or something gleaned from the media, in contradiction to our lived experiences. Who we think is a stranger is an individual thing. It’s also defined by culture and history.”
An ex-boss, Paul, told me his story about how his life changed by talking to a stranger on a plane 40 years ago. He was backpacking in the US from Australia as an 18 year old. He did not know what to do with his life next as his trip was just ending. He started talking to a co-passenger seated next to him. The passenger, who turned out to be a senior executive, took a liking to Paul and was quite impressed with him. They spoke for a few hours, through the entire duration of the flight. This passenger helped Paul land a job with a leading defence technology company and later, a scholarship to a prestigious university. If Paul hadn’t talked to this stranger on the plane, he would have returned back to Australia and lived an entirely different life. Paul says since then, he makes it a point to talk to every person he sits next to on a plane.
My wife Roopi has also found life-long friendships through spontaneous encounters with people, who were strangers. She believes that everyone has a story and everyone’s story is interesting. She has learnt that we can find a connect point with just about everyone – there is something in our journeys that will be similar – some overlap; some shared joy or shared suffering. Some of her closest friends now are the people she has chatted with on a plane or in the hospital waiting room or while trekking. Once, when Roopi was returning back from a trip from the US, she sat next to a woman who was coming to travel solo across India. They chatted for most of the 14 hour flight. Her airplane buddy, a model from Venezuela, even stayed with us for a few days and they are still in touch 8 years later.
So, my message this week focuses on opening ourselves up to strangers and what it could lead to.
Why talk to strangers?
Stark, in an interview with Zosia Bielski of The Globe and Mail, details some of the reasons why she believes talking to strangers can be so powerful. As you will see, these possible benefits are not just relevant on a personal level. They are just as relevant in our roles as leaders.
1. “It makes you feel human”
It’s really as simple as that. Just acknowledging the other person changes your entire experience. When you make eye contact or smile or ask a question that you’re not obliged to – you’re making a very fundamental connection.
2. “It breaks the monotony”
Connecting with someone new, someone you wouldn’t have reached out to otherwise, forces you out of autopilot. Because you don’t have a prescribed routine here, you’ll find that it demands you be more present in the moment.
3. “It helps you be understood”
Ironically enough, research shows that sometimes strangers understand us better than friends or family. Why? Because of the “closeness bias”; you expect people you’re close to to be able to preempt how you feel and what you want. So you don’t go into the details that you would with a stranger who has no background. Because you’re explaining yourself better, there’s a higher chance you will be understood. Strangers can also afford to hear you out and not judge because they aren’t linked to this longer term.
4. “It’s good for introverts”
If you think you’re an introvert, there’s a good chance that you will enjoy talking to strangers more than people you know. That’s because these end up being shorter interactions that you can pull back from when you want to. It could make you feel more in control than you would otherwise.
5. “It might give you something real”
While talking to people you don’t know could be associated with caution, sometimes it is the unexpected that creates stronger connect. Because it’s unplanned, sometimes people let their guard down, and you skip past the routine politeness to much more honesty. Unexpected honesty from a stranger also encourages more honesty in response.
6. “It’s an antidote to fear”
The more cosmopolitan our societies get, the more flux there is, and the less tolerant people are willing to be. It boils down, in many ways, to whether or not we can understand and be less suspicious of people and ideas that are different from ours. And that can’t come from remaining strangers. To be empathetic and not stereotype means we need to connect.
Maria Bezaitis, a principal engineer at Intel, in her TED talk, Why we need strangeness (http://www.ted.com/talks/maria_bezaitis_the_surprising_need_for_strangeness), takes this a step further. She equates “Don’t talk to strangers” with “Stay from anyone who’s not familiar to you. Stick with the people you know. Stick with people like you.”
“How appealing is that? It’s not really what we do, is it, when we’re at our best? When we’re at our best, we reach out to people who are not like us, because when we do that, we learn from people who are not like us.”
Bezaitis goes on to share that her phrase for this “not like us” feeling, is “strangeness”. And that given how digital connectivity has transformed relationships, the question we should be asking, is “How much of this strangeness are we getting?”
This is particularly important as we think through our role as leaders in a growing, global company. Our circles of team members, peers, partners and consumers is constantly widening.
Our success lies in how effectively we are able to appreciate and leverage the diversity – the “strangeness” – of our people and consumers to create amazing products and experiences for them.
So, if building this connect is important, how do you start a conversation with a stranger?
- Show you’re approachable – Your body language matters, so if you’re walking around with your arms crossed and eyes lowered, chances are that people won’t want to strike up a conversation. Likewise, look for the signals in the other person. Is someone trying to make eye contact? Or smiling? Start there.
- Say hi – It doesn’t have to be that tough. A simple hello works well enough. Judy Robinett, author of How to Be a Power Connector, suggests trying something similar to the Marriott Hotel’s “15-5 rule” – When a Marriott employee comes within 15 feet of a guest, they must either make eye contact or acknowledge the person with a friendly nod. If they come within five feet, then they must smile and say hello.
- Find something common and topical for both of you – It could be the weather if you’re outdoors, the time if you’re waiting around for someone, how you got invited if it’s a party, the room you’re in at an event, where you’re headed to if you’re in shared transport. Pick something that is neutral enough to strike up a conversation and yet doesn’t quite require a one-word response.
- Make it about them – Show you’re interested. Ask questions. Show that you’re listening to them. If people feel you’re being genuine, they are more likely to respond.
- Share– This is probably tougher than asking about the other person. But if you want someone to open up to you; to stop being a stranger, then you need to be willing to let down your guard too.
- Imagine that the other person is already your friend – This is a common hack to make conversations easier. Instead of constantly thinking of the person as a stranger, think of her as someone who is becoming/ or is a friend. It will help ease your conversation.
- Know when to pull back– Stop when it isn’t working. Don’t force a conversation that makes the other person uncomfortable.
I’m sure you will have ‘stranger moments’ of your own to share. Do write in with them. I look forward to hearing from you.