Talk to a stranger in 2016

The Walking Deadline is the staff blog of the Leaven newspaper.
The Walking Deadline is the staff blog of the Leaven newspaper.

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

As a reporter it’s my job to talk to strangers; almost every day, I ask fairly personal questions of people I’ve never met before.

The thing is, after doing this job for more than 30 years, it’s kind of become a habit, and I find myself interviewing the people around me even when I’m not working.

When I’m in line at the grocery store, waiting for an elevator, walking the dog, hanging out in a coffee shop, I frequently just start talking to random people.

I can’t help myself.

I’m curious, I’m not very good at being quiet, and experience has taught me that if I engage someone in conversation they will probably respond — often with something very interesting.

As a matter of fact, I’m almost always amazed at how open and honest people can be.

Everyone has at least one good anecdote and most are eager to share it. And although it constantly surprises me, I have found that usually the most ordinary-looking people are harboring the most extraordinary stories.

Engaging them in conversation is like opening a can of lima beans and finding Hershey Kisses inside.

Connecting with people makes me happy, and I think it makes them happy, too.

I’m not alone in that philosophy.

Behavioral scientists at the University of Chicago recently conducted an experiment with local commuters.

In return for a $5 gift card, commuters were instructed to engage in conversation with a stranger near them on the train,

A control group of commuters were told to keep to themselves.

Surveys were filled out afterwards and the researchers found that commuters who talked with a stranger reported a significantly more positive experience than those who sat in solitude — even though they expected the opposite outcome.

Why not try that experiment yourself?

Why not make it a resolution for this coming year?

As the New Year approaches, most of us feel an obligation to follow the tradition of making resolutions that will improve our personal lives.

I’d like to suggest something different. Make a resolution to step out of yourself and discover someone else’s story.

Take a page from my book and talk to a stranger.

Through my experience, I’ve learned people are usually friendly and want to talk to you.

Your challenge is to break the ice, and here are some suggestions for doing that:

Put away your iPhone

Smile and make eye contact

Say “Hello,” “Good morning,” “What brings you here today?”

Compliment something about the person or their attire.

Make an observation about the day, the weather or your surroundings.

Let the conversation flow from there. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say; be curious about what they’re going to say, and continue asking questions.

Risk rejection. You’ll know right away if the person is interested in continuing the conversation. If not, you haven’t lost anything but a few moments of your time.

Take it from an expert — it’s worth the risk.

And while you’re following through with your resolution to talk with strangers, if you happen to discover an interesting Catholic out there, drop The Leaven staff a line. We’re always looking for a good story.

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