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As a child you might have been warned by your parents, or maybe your school teachers – ‘Do not speak to strangers’. Strangers only want to lure you into the back of their vans with sweet treats and then, well the rest is unthinkable. Strangers are the enemy, the unknown, the reason bad things happen. Don’t make eye contact with them, keep your head down, if someone tries to stop you, keep walking. Stranger danger is often a rule of our childhood which we carry into our adult lives.
Having lived in London for a few years it became very apparent that we still fear strangers even as adults, accidental eye contact across the carriage on the tube sends shivers through the toughest of humans. We’re lucky nowadays as our portable, handheld devices make it easy to avoid such fates. So when we take our seats on that short-haul flight we can put our headphones in, switch our iPads on and avoid human interaction entirely.
So what happens when we as adults do engage in conversations with those we don’t know? I asked a few people and here’s just some of the responses they gave me:
‘Why are you talking me? Weirdo’
‘I’m not interested, thanks’
‘Mind your own business’
‘Can you not talk to me please’
I think it’s clear to see there is a perception here that if you spark up a conversation with a stranger you are a bit weird, or most infuriating trying to chat someone up (like there is no other reason a man would speak to a woman or vice versa).
So what we’ve now learnt is that I am a weirdo. I talk to strangers all the time, talking is good, talking is healthy. Having conversations with those you do not know leads you to uncover new insights, get unbiased viewpoints, indulge in your community or delve into a new city, the insider track on cool pop-ups/hidden bars/free burgers that you don’t see advertised. We fear less when we talk to those we do not know, those we will never meet again, those who have no prior judgment of our characters or bias of our decisions.
The world around us is full of knowledge, strangers hold the key to this knowledge, they help us unlock cultural differences, they could be your next boss, your next partner, your next source of inspiration, yet we are too fearful to spark conversation.
You might be wondering how does this relate to being homeless? Well after spending large amounts of time talking to those on the street, one of the most common things I hear is ‘I’m lonely, people don’t want to talk to me’. These people have no choice but to sit and observe daily, they know all the secrets, they have a backlog of stories, they’ve theorised life over and over, yet their vocabulary is often restricted to a handful of phrases ‘excuse me miss’, ‘spare some change please’, etc.
‘Why are you so nice to me?’ – a question from one of the regular rough sleepers I see most days, I stop and have a quick 2 minute conversation, and before I leave he poses that question. This is bizarre, a minute ago we all agreed that those who speak to strangers are weirdos not ‘nice’, but this is proof that a simple exchange can really make a person’s day.
I ran a survey recently to see how people react to the homeless on the street and lots of people said they gave them some change, or they bought them a coffee, or maybe they just walked on by. Two people said they ‘stopped and spoke to them’, well bravo to you, ‘they’ are exactly the same as ‘us’ – humans, social animals. So next time you’re walking through town and you spot a guy in a doorway, pop over, ask how he is, make his day!
Hopefully that’s given you a bit of food for thought or maybe you still think I’m weird…