In Carlos Ruis Zafon’s novel, Shadow of the Wind, one character asks, “Sometimes, it’s easier to talk to a stranger than someone you know. Why is that?” The other answers, “Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as they wish us to be.”
It might seem strange and far-fetched, yet, these words carry weight.
I still remember the numerous strangers I’ve met over the years. There was the Serbian man who sat next to me on a train to Brighton, detailing his family life on a farm. He could not pronounce my name and neither could I pronounce his, which led to much laughter and confusion on an otherwise dreary trip.
During a recent flight to the UAE, a fellow Indian woman started sharing "easy" blueberry cheesecake recipes, because I mentioned the love I had for cheesecake. She explained her love for blogging and showed me a chapter from the novel she was writing, something she hadn’t even revealed to her friends. It didn’t matter if we didn’t know each other or if we would meet again. For those few hours, it was almost as if there were no secrets between us. Somehow, just the fact that I enjoyed cheesecake was enough reason for us to bond.
I have vivid memories of the kind woman who patted my back, after I fell sick on my first flight. I was only eight years old. She kept offering me water, paper bags and slowly began to narrate entertaining stories from her life, to keep me cheerful. My mother took her number, and till today, they have remained in touch. These conversations, however brief or long, helped dispel the loneliness and boredom on these journeys.
We meet so many strangers in our lives -many stay on to become friends or even mere acquaintances, others remain in those moments of fleeting conversations. “Strangers allow us to get out of our heads," explains Louise Lambert, a Canadian Dubai-based psychologist. “They break up that negative self-focus, and prevent the train of negative circular thinking,” she says, explaining that our anxiety ridden thoughts are distracted by these seemingly random, yet insightful conversations.
Why do we open to strangers?
For starters, we aren’t weighed down by too many expectations.
There are no pre-existing ideas, assumptions, judgements about what they think is best for you. When we talk to people that we know too closely, the risk of misunderstanding each other is higher. “With a stranger, you must explain everything to be understood, and that is why you are better understood, says Lambert.
Strangers allow us to get out of our heads. They break up that negative self-focus, and prevent the train of negative circular thinking.
During these conversations with strangers, we share details about ourselves that we might not otherwise understand ourselves. We give more context, and understand ourselves better, owing to sharing more. Moreover, strangers are less judgmental as they also do not wish to be judged by you. “Even if they are, we know the interaction will be brief and won’t be repeated. So, we take more risks in opening,” says Lambert. With our families and friends, they are far more concerned and involved, and we end up predicting what they will say in response.
A stranger will know us at that point in time during our conversation with them, says Ana Caragea, a 37-year-old Romanian leadership advisor and founder of the company Strategic Discovery, which helps introverts take on leadership roles. “This frees us from the expectations our close ones might have of us. Once we’re free, we open up more.” It’s also important to trust our instincts when talking to strangers, as we’ll know whether we should continue to talk to them or not. Even if these interactions don’t directly impact our mental health, we feel heard.
“In time and with practice, our senses will guide us in making good decisions when opening up to strangers, and we will seek out spaces like networking events, conferences, and hobbies related events to strengthen our communication and connection abilities,” she adds.
We feel seen when talking to strangers
As humans, we always want to be seen.
A stranger will know us at that point in time during our conversation with them. This frees us from the expectations our close ones might have of us. Once we’re free, we open up more.
“Small conversations such as ‘Oh it’s hot today’ and ‘Parking is terrible’ let us be seen, and feel validated,” says Lambert. As humans, we feel heard and acknowledged and we exist in the eyes of others,” she says. This is particularly helpful for those who are struggling with anxiety and depression. These conversations can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, which can chip away at your mental and emotional health. It’s a relief to know someone’s there.
Why are these interactions important?
These small connections also help build social capital and trust not only in communities, apartment buildings but in workplaces too. It’s not too difficult to strike up these conversations either - you can talk about a seemingly insignificant topic, including the weather, coffee, or parking.
“I also often work in cafes and co-working locations for the random conversations that add the human touch to my day," says 51-year-old Naheed Maalik, a Pakistani entrepreneur, based in Dubai. “These moments can coast from meaningful to superficial, and there’s no obligation to continue a conversation if there is no connection.” After working in a rigidly structured office for years, she became an entrepreneur and found that networking with strangers was far more constructive for her well-being. The loneliness reduced, as she met new people, built new friendships and acquaintances. “I learnt the art of conversations with strangers. Networking became both a means to grow the business and keep myself sane,” she adds.
Conversations with strangers can help us identify our blind spots and offer a different perspective, says Caragea. “For that moment, you let go of the need of a ‘perfect answer’. You let go of the pressure on yourself to figure everything out,” she explains.
Do these interactions help boost our productivity?
It always helps to talk out loud.
When we just remain confined to our usual relationships, our world is limited. While it is always immensely constructive to have a strong support system, reaching out to strangers can pay off, especially when it comes to careers and new ideas, says Lambert. These can spur new partnerships, ideas, and friendships. “This is why cross-disciplinary work is so helpful. It is the cross-pollination of ideas, and strangers do the same for us,” she says.
I also often work in cafes and co-working locations for the random conversations that add the human touch to my day. These moments can coast from meaningful to superficial, and there’s no obligation to continue a conversation if there is no connection.
When we talk to strangers, we find creative and innovative ways of expanding our initial concepts and ideas, says Caragea. If the environment is supportive and encourages self-expression, brainstorming becomes an effective method to generate new ideas. A stranger isn’t attached to our project and ideas, so they’re not invested in the outcome. “This is beneficial, as we are then more open to hearing a diverse perspective. We might even learn new strategies that can fast-track the implementation,” she says.
Starting a conversation with a stranger might be daunting, especially for those who are shy and socially anxious. “Doing so can help build our confidence and self-esteem. The more we practise initiating and sustaining conversations with strangers, the easier it becomes, and the more comfortable we become in social situations,” says Cyrus Rustom, a wellness coach and the co-founder of Boxica, a community gym in Dubai.
(Note: This article was first published on April 25, 2023)