Talking to Strangers

Awhile back I made a comment on someone’s Facebook post to the effect that I wished people at the gym and on the street wouldn’t wear earbuds because it makes it hard to have casual conversation with them.

I don’t recall the subject of the post, but my comment was related.

Someone else — a person I don’t know — castigated me for this opinion, saying that they should not be required to “placate” me in my desire for conversation.

This comment pissed me off, but I did not respond because

  1.  the person asserted they were neurodivergent in some way and, assuming that to be true — they were clearly not a garden-variety troll — I did not want to cause them any harm by replying rudely;
  2.  I really didn’t want to end up in nasty back and forth on social media — one advantage of not having a huge following on any platform is that I don’t end up in flame wars with people I don’t even know and I want to keep it that way; and
  3.  I have learned that one doesn’t always have to respond to people, even rude and offensive people, though I will confess that I am better at that online than I am in person.

But it bugged me enough that I haven’t been able to forget it. I find the very idea that engaging in the practice of engaging with other members of a social species is asking them to “placate” me offensive

Besides, there is a great deal of scientific evidence that suggests that the casual conversations we have with people we don’t know is very good for our mental health.

I recently came across a book entitled The Power of Strangers, by Joe Keohane. Keohane is a reporter and, because of his job, prided himself on his ability to talk to strangers. But he reached a point where he didn’t think he was doing it as well as he should, so he set out to write a book on the subject.

I have been reading the book, or rather skimming it. There is a lot of good material in it, but it is unfortunately written in a style and tone that I find annoying, one that is most often associated with self-help books. However, he’s a good reporter and has collected a lot of things we all should know.

His core point that humans should talk to strangers and that such communication is part of how we became the species we are is good and valid, so I’m skimming to get the gist of what he has to say. (Also, his style may not annoy other people the way it does me — it’s a very common form of nonfiction writing, so common that I suspect a lot of editors push it on people who come to them with an idea.)

Connecting with other people is important and speaking with people who are not just strangers, but very unlike you, opens a lot of mind doors. Continue reading “Talking to Strangers”