My mother taught me: Never talk to strangers. I taught my own children a similar lesson — the need to be wary.
We’re all strangers to those we come to call friends, lovers, family — initially. Then, if we’re smart, we take the necessary time to close the gap of knowing each other well through observation, communication, shared experience and eventually, trust.
Now consider this. What if we threw caution to the wind and allowed ourselves greater openness with strangers?
Alternately, the opposite may be true for some. We would be better served by attentiveness to our safety, by a healthy dose of circumspection, by less naïveté.
But how do we know which way to bend or err, whether to be more open or less so? Can we develop a sixth sense in order to reduce the potential emotional or physical danger, while reaping the benefits of a full spectrum of enriching connections?
Talking to Strangers Online
Online dating has encouraged us to interact with strangers as we sift through exaggerations, falsities, and masks that may obscure what is real. Theoretically, online dating is designed to help us achieve an intimate connection beyond the virtual. But getting to know each other requires patience and time.
Patience in the online world of commodity partners and infinite possibilities? It’s a challenge, to be sure. And as we progress with our online acquaintances, if those we’re getting to know have ventured too far afield of the person they represent, it’s no surprise that we feel foolish, duped, disappointed.
Even outside the dating world, we readily (and eagerly) embrace superficial friendships and casual flirtations courtesy of social media. We recognize the limitations… usually. We understand that these relationships may be short-lived and also, lightweight. But we hope for the best, and we hope to learn from our mistakes.
In the real world?
Occasionally we smile on the street at someone in passing. We chat in the coffee line or while pumping gas. We say yes to a spontaneous date! These are the ‘old’ ways of interacting with strangers, and they remain pleasurable — brightening our mood and reminding us we can still connect quickly and chemically.
On Casual Connections
The New York Times alerts us to the positive impacts of even slight human interaction between strangers.
In “Hello, Stranger,” a look at the behavioral science behind commuter experiences offers the benefits of a pleasant acknowledgment, and the downside to walling ourselves inside the bubble of ear-buds, smartphones, and eyes cast downward.
Relying on various experiments to challenge our assumption — well-being is most dependent on those with whom we have the closest ties – the article also considers those with whom we have “weak ties” – people we don’t know well. Writers Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton report the following:
… introverts and extroverts alike felt happier on days when they had more social interactions… interactions with weak ties correlated at least as highly with happiness as interactions with strong ties.
In other words, “even fleeting glances can make a difference” according to the authors. (The article references another study that indicates staring as being uncomfortable, which is likely consistent with experience for most of us.)
Reaching Out to Strangers
Considering the benefits of reaching out to strangers — feeling engaged, pleasant conversation without need of investment, the uplifting impact of being on the receiving end of a smile – I’m reminded that our hesitation to talk to strangers face-to-face, or even to connect with a glance, deprives us of qualities and responses that we don’t always experience through digital means.
In other words, there’s nothing quite like real life, with its sensual textures, its tangibility, its “je ne sais quoi” that adds to the surprise of feeling visible, acknowledged, human.
I love my online friends and fancies, recognizing the value they bring to my life, and the 24/7 quality that is so necessary in my life. I also understand the inherent limitations. We can certainly thrive on our online encounters, but they cannot and should not replace our personal exchanges. Both serve a purpose. Both provide benefits. Both can be a win-win, with eyes wide open, of course.
And I remind myself: Other than my sons, everyone in my life who is important to me was a stranger, at first.