Speaking to Strangers

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Yesterday I was one of the mentors and judges at an Enterprise Day for young people held at Butlins in Bognor Regis. There were 150 youngsters, all from Year 10, from perhaps eight schools learning about business. Brilliant. They listened, worked and learned, and so did I.

One of the organisers pointed out to me that a whole generation of children have been brought up being told not to speak to strangers, As I looked around, it seemed that she was right and they had learnt the lesson well. Here were a cross-section of teenagers who struggled to communicate confidently. With people they knew, their peers and teachers, they were fine –  more or less.  With others around them it was a different story. None of them crossed the bridge, or the room, to say ‘hello’ to each other. ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ was the unwritten rule.

Today, when interpersonal communication has never been so important, when networking is crucial to the survival and growth of business, when family relationships crumble for want of communication skills, society continues to create fear of strangers from the earliest formative years, and wonders how we can get that same generation into work.

I love it when it snows here in the UK for this one reason: people moved beyond that highly irrational fear of one another, and take a step towards community once more. Our need for each other overcomes the negative beliefs we have about one another. People are generally good, are generally trustworthy, and have no desire to damage each other. It’s true that a tiny percentage are not, but I’m not going to let their bad behaviour stifle my good behaviour. That makes me their prisoner, and evil triumphs over good.

Here’s how you can do it:

Build a reputation for being a ‘Kind Stranger’ yourself, wherever you are. Be encouraging, inspiring, caring – and be available. Live beyond the fear of being thought of as slightly strange. (At one time it was ‘strange’ NOT to wish those around you a good day.)  I speak to everyone – little children in the shop, teenagers in the car park, an older man on the train, a younger woman walking along the street – and it is very rare that I’m ignored or rebuked. Almost without exception, the invitation to connect is accepted for a few moments and I can brighten that person’s day with an honest, respectful smile and a brief, appropriate conversation or a sentence or two of approval or encouragement. It takes 15 seconds, that’s all – and the readiness to INITIATE the conversation. People soon realise you’re OK.

Please, speak to strangers. In the queue at the checkout, filling the car up with fuel, eating out, walking along the street, on public transport, take a moment to invade the negativity we have about one another, especially young people, and initiate a brief conversation. Yesterday as soon as the youngsters came into the room I excused myself from our little peer group of adult business people and went over and introduced myself to them. Soon we were chatting away, and they personally invited me to join them on their table. How rewarding is that!

In our reasonably large local village I’ve deliberately chosen to speak to young people. I remember feeling nervous about speaking to children, even though I was Chairman of Governors in their school!  How silly.  How I had been intimidated!  I’m not any more. I want them to know that people do not need to be feared. I talk to little children, with mum or dad nearby. It’s so rewarding – and has an added benefit of them learning by my example that fear of strangers is unnecessary and unwelcome. I want children to be free to walk to school on their own without the nagging anxiety of being abducted. I want them happy to grow up initiating their own conversations.

I want the tribal, gang, and class suspicions that afflict us to go. Forever. By reconnecting with one another wherever we can, across every rift and gully of age, gender, class or culture, we’ll become part of the answer in our exploding world instead of part of the problem. And it will get our country back on its feet again.  Isolation and suspicion beget the death and devastation of war. Connect with others around you and you’ll foster trade, prosperity and freedom. It can be a bit messy occasionally, but much less messy than the war alternative.

So do it. Be a Kind Stranger today.

4 Replies to “Speaking to Strangers”

  1. Couldn’t agree more – a smile is all that is needed to cheer someone in the street. An hello is even better and I am always surprised at how many respond and sometimes disappointed when they don’t but it never stops me from reaching out. Good on you!

  2. I am 100% with you Andrew. I love speaking to strangers because I then find out we have something in common. Its like they melt in front of you – not at the moment though because of the snow – actually that is not true because they really are likely to speak with you. We all have so much in common with each other, we just haven’t discovered it all yet! So, to all the strangers commenting and reading this blog I wish you a fun time this Christmas and hope you connect with soemone new in your life next year.

  3. I love your post Andrew.

    Just imagine the implication a ‘fear of speaking with strangers’ could have in the mind of a coach, trainer, teacher… and look at the other side too; how this kind of fear could affect the mentality of a learner, trainee or student, in accepting to understand and see the world as it is from other people’s point of view… I once had a German (philosophy) professor who brought to my awareness the fact that if you want to really understand someone you must emulate him or maybe sometimes imitate him…how could you ever do that if you perceive that person as a “Stranger”? We all belong to the same species, no? The variations in our appearances, cultures, beliefs, thoughts,etc. makes us ‘different’ (as of fascinating), but surely not strangers. That’s what we need to teach our children.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic 🙂

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