Talking to Strangers, A.K.A. I’ve Finally Become my Mother

by Katy on April 20, 2010 · 33 comments

When I was growing up, I was dead mortified by my mother’s tendency to chat up any and all strangers. Shopkeepers, fellow public transport passengers and pretty much anyone who had the audacity to wait in line with us got the same friendly treatment.

Fast forward thirty-some years and I find that I do the same thing. I hadn’t really given much thought to this proclivity until I read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which lists talking to strangers as one of her paths to happiness. Will talking to strangers help me to become a happy and fulfilled person?

I was midway through reading The Happiness Project when I took my son to Costco as part of our buying prescription glasses adventure. The woman who waited on us had the most elaborate and dazzling manicure. Not only were her fingernails painted with swirly sparkles, but each nail had an imbedded rhinestone. I was having a hard time focusing on the task at hand, (I’m easily distracted) and complimented her spectacular fingernails. This brought about an elaborate story of how she had worked most of her adult life in a bakery, which meant she couldn’t wear acrylic nails. But the addition of carpal tunnel syndrome meant the end of that career and the beginning of work as an optical assistant, which opened up an entire new world of nails as an artistic canvas.

My 14-year-old son was less enthused. I saw in his eyes the same look I used to wear when my mother embarked on long conversations with complete strangers. We had come full circle. However, this was very much a teaching moment, and my son and I did have a somewhat lengthy conversation about how this woman with her fancy fingernails and big poofy hairdo was someone that I normally would not have a chance to talk with. And that five minute conversation back there? It gave me a chance to see life through her eyes for a few minutes.

Was I happier? It’s hard to say, as happiness is hardly a concrete and measurable entity. But I definitely do have a small flutter of pleasure in the recollection of this conversation. And yes, I was a little bit disappointed that this woman was not working the day that my son and I went to go pick up his glasses. I had been looking forward to seeing if she had a new manicure.

Do you talk to strangers, and if so, do you feel like it’s part of the big picture of your happiness? Have you ever made a friend that started out as talking to a stranger? (I can think of a number of my mother’s friendships that started this way.) Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacquelyn April 20, 2010 at 11:51 am

The older I get, the more I talk to strangers.
I know it makes me feel happy, because if I go out and run errands and don’t talk to anybody, I get home and feel really depressed. But if I go out and run errands and make a point to chit chat with whoever I’m doing business or waiting in line with, I come home feeling like I’ve had a connection, however brief or casual. It means the difference between feeling like I’m connected to the greater community and feeling as though I live in a bubble.

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Kristen@TheFrugalGirl April 20, 2010 at 11:53 am

I do this! Maybe it’s why I’m so cheerful? lol I’m just very friendly, and I have no problems striking up a conversation with people.

I can read body language and stuff, though, so I don’t talk someone’s ear off if they’re not interested. 😉 In a case like that, a smile and “hi!” is quite sufficient.

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Donna April 20, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Growing up in New York, I did not take to striking up conversations with strangers. I think it’s just the culture there. But now that I live in Hawaii, if the mood hits me, I might talk with a stranger. People are more receptive to that here. Besides, all our friends were strangers once!

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Katy April 20, 2010 at 3:19 pm

I lived in NYC for a few years back in the day, and got a lot of strangers talking to me. Of course, they were 100% skanky guys. I guess beggars can’t be choosers.

😉

-Katy

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Jo April 20, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Absolutely! It brings great consternation to my family (with lots of eye-rolling), but I think it’s the hallmark of civilization.

And out of conversations with fellow bus-riders I’ve gotten great book recommendations.

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Susan April 20, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Wow! I thought it was just me that was talking to strangers. I remember my mom doing it and I would be so embarrassed and now I am doing it. I think it adds to my life. I made a little connection with someone and it feels good. It probably also has something to do with the fact that I moved last summer and have made no new friends :(.

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Annie Jones April 20, 2010 at 12:57 pm

I am an introvert. With the obvious exceptions (my husband, primarily) I find most interpersonal relationship to be a real energy drain. However, I love talking to strangers at the store, the post office, etc. I can have the pleasure of a brief conversation — almost always a pleasant and upbeat one — without any of the maintenance required in an sustained friendship. Yes, it makes me happy.

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Katie April 20, 2010 at 2:07 pm

I’m glad so many people seem to get such happiness out of conversations with strangers. I hope, however, that all of them are like Kristen and don’t try to force a conversation on someone who isn’t interested in having one. There have been several instances when I’ve been in line or on public transportation and people (usually creepy or drunken men, but not always) have started talking to me despite the fact that I’m reading a book and have refused to give up and even gotten hostile when I’ve indicated that I don’t want to talk to them. They seem to believe that they are ENTITLED to a conversation with me or anyone else they fancy, and that we don’t have a right to refuse. It’s a very invasive and insulting experience.

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Katy April 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Katie,

I just got back from taking the bus to Goodwill and back, (our salad dressing container had broken, which is a catastrophic incident!) and let me tell ya’, I DID NOT start conversations with anyone on the bus. Not that everyone on the bus is necessarily pickled in cigarette juice or drunk at two in the afternoon, but today many were.

Come to think of it, writing my blog is a bit of conversing with strangers, to which I say:

Howdy strangers!

XX00

-Katy

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Katie April 20, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Hi Katy. The nice thing about talking to strangers online is that they can’t bug you to respond! 🙂 I didn’t mean to smear people on public transport as all drunk or sketchy or something; it’s just that that seems to be the best opportunity for negative encounters, probably because of the time I spend there relative to other stranger opportunities, and because it’s often more difficult to get away from/ignore someone when every seat is full and they’re blocking your access to the aisle. I have had some fun conversations with strangers, but usually I’m not in the mood, and I hate it when people don’t respect that.

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Rachel April 20, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Yes, I talk to strangers! It’s now part of my job as a retail manager to talk to strangers all day, but I really enjoy it. I do it as well when I’m out and about. That connection makes me happy and I hope that a brief, friendly conversation does the same for the people I talk to.
My dad could talk to anyone about anything and I always admired that – I’m just carrying on the tradition!

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Julia May 5, 2010 at 1:44 pm

My husband was a retail store manager for approx. 20 years and talking with his customers was his favorite part of the job! He met the nicest people, like the sweet old lady made a quilt for our son when he was born, and the retired weatherman (a local legend who just passed away) who always asked him in for a Coca-Cola when my husband delivered his medicine. Now my husband works in his company’s headquarters and although the hours are better, he really misses the contact with his customers.

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Lucinda April 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm

I talk to strangers all the time. And yes, it came from my mother. I’m sure it sometimes embarassed me as a kid but I was also taught chatting with others is what adults did as a matter of course.

I now see it as politeness. We so often hear about people treating others with disrespect because of their job or dress, or some such nonsense. But, for me, chatting with strangers reinforces our shared humanity.

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Samantha April 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Admittedly I am not one to chat up random people – thankfully my husband is though! He took our sons to the park one day and struck up a conversation with a woman that had two boys around the same age. It turned out that she lived just a block away from us so my husband invited her and her family to come over for a bbq we were having the next day. She is now one of my best friends and I have gained a whole new group of friends through her. It pays to be an extrovert!

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Jana @ The Summer House April 20, 2010 at 3:11 pm

I talk to strangers and it does make me happier because being interested in someone else gets me out of self centered thinking. There’s so many interesting people out there.

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Katy April 20, 2010 at 3:17 pm

I totally agree.

-Katy

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Shannon April 20, 2010 at 3:29 pm

I love talking to strangers! I used to be a credit union teller and it was the perfect job for me. My grandma was one to gab with strangers too, and i thought it was weird too.

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Karin April 20, 2010 at 3:37 pm

I never thought much about how often I talked to strangers, until my husband pointed out that everyone chats with me in the grocery line. I love it, simply because in the small community where we live, talking to strangers over time makes them friends.

While I hadn’t thought about it being my happiness connection, it does make me happy! It means that I am a part of my community, interacting with them, showing kindness, caring about something simple, knowing that I am going to see them again. I have seen it happen over and over, even in our former large city, I have always gotten better customer service and felt more comfortable in stores just because of random chats!

Great blog! Love it.

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WilliamB April 20, 2010 at 4:19 pm

I do. Sometimes I find something to complement a person about, then do so. Also I grew up in a town with lots of tourists. One day I saw a tourist with a map and asked if I could help. After quite some conversation it turned out no local had so much as said “hello” to her and she’d formed a very negative opinion of my town. Our conversation changed her mind. Ever since then if I see people with maps I ask if I can help.

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Marianne April 20, 2010 at 4:22 pm

My mother did worse than talk to strangers. She waved to the Easter Bunny when i was in jr high!

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Diana April 20, 2010 at 9:16 pm

LOL, I was also mortified by mother’s penchant for striking up a conversation. I was incredibly shy, the less noticed the better! In the last few years I’ve become more outgoing and have started the same habit. Something interesting in their grocery cart? Are they telling a funny story? I figure it’s in public, many an escaped giggle has started an interesting conversation.

I haven’t started any friendships, but it makes the cafe or lunch room at work much more pleasant since I’ve chatted up some of the people. Same at the grocery store or gas station. And it gives me a pleasant glow to make the person behind the counter smile, that person used to be me. I treasured the nice talkitive people.

A couple of years ago I had an amusing conversation with a lady from Baltimore, she had transplanted a few years before (to Oregon). She told me it unnerved her how nice and chatty people were. Took her forever to get used to total strangers wanting to have a conversation with her, and they weren’t high or crazy. When I relayed the story to a friend that had lived in Baltimore, he shook his head in agreement. Not knocking Balatimore, but I think it does make a difference where you live.

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Allison April 20, 2010 at 10:24 pm

I have pretty much talked to anyone since I was a child and most of my family members too. I grew up in a military family so you needed to be able to adapt and make new friends. I also worked for the post office and many other retail jobs where talking to people made the day go by faster and let you give better, more personalized service to customers.
I try not to infringe on anyones personal space or be nosy but I have had some really personal information relayed to me upon occasion. I have also made lifelong friends worldwide and learned lots of things I never thought about before.
One of my co-workers (who never talked to anyone) once said ‘you will talk to anyone about anything, won’t you?’ meaning it as an insult. I actually considered it one of the greatest (albeit backhanded) compliments I have ever received.

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Jeanine April 21, 2010 at 5:45 am

I’m southern AND live in a small town. You talk to strangers, because we’ve got to know who you are, why you are here, and who is your mother!!!!

We’ll talk to a tree if it happens to speak!

I have no issues with striking up a conversation with ANYONE. My whole family does it, even the girls at their young age. As a matter of fact, I encourage the girls to do so…I think it helps with their public speaking/shyness.

I’ve met quite a few people that way, and though I can’t say I’ve made any friends from it, it does add that extra something to your day, and probably theirs too.

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Tracy Balazy April 21, 2010 at 6:49 am

I do the same here in Detroit. People around here are very friendly for the most part. And my spontaneous conversations with strangers usually elicit eye-rolling and flustered sighs from my husband, which only eggs me on.

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BarbS April 21, 2010 at 7:01 am

I had the oddest feeling of deja vu when reading this post, Katy. I remember so many times of my mom chatting with strangers, and how embarrassed I was. My grandmother would say, “your mom can talk to governors and garbage men, and she treats them all the same.” And I was proud of her for that, while at the same time woefully embarrassed in that eye-rolling teenage manner.

Now, I do the exact same thing.

In answer to your question about whether these strangers have ever become friends: a resounding “yes!” I’ve met some wonderful friends on the train. Just struck up a conversation, while standing on the platform in the freezing cold waiting for the train. One turned out to be the mother of a friend of my daughter’s, one’s daughter turned into our favorite babysitter, and another one has recently been through a tragic experience similar to one that I’ve been through. These neighbors, now good friends, would be strangers but for the fact that we started chatting on the train platform.

I also have a good friend who works in the grocery store near my house. We started chatting one day as he sliced the corned beef I was buying, and have become fast friends.

Does talking to strangers add to my happiness? Most days, yes. I will admit, there are some days when I just don’t have the energy…but on those days, I sometimes find some stranger strikes up a conversation with me 🙂

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Carla April 21, 2010 at 9:08 am

I’m a Southerner. Southerners talk to strangers. ‘Nuf said.

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Lisa April 21, 2010 at 9:10 am

Yes, I talk to strangers (even stray cats and dogs who don’t answer back). On the internet, I join right in on forum chats. This is counterintuitive since I’m on the shy side. I’ve made friends over the years because I had the audacity to speak FIRST. Quiet as a mouse when I was a kid, my mom’s chatting with strangers drove me wild. It just goes to show that if we live long enough, we become our mothers. After all is said and done, is that such a bad thing?

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tammy April 21, 2010 at 1:26 pm

I DO talk to strangers and it is one of the most gratifying and happy things I do. I sell plants from my garden and I don’t think one can really sell a living thing without talking to the person perchasing it. I love hearing stories about my customers gardens or how a certain plant reminds them of this and that. I think southerners are very prone to be friendly and helpful. I especially love talking to little kids in line at the market with their moms. My kids are 24 and 31 *sigh* so interacting with a little one, even for a few minutes is SWEET!

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Gretchen Rubin April 26, 2010 at 8:01 am

I saw the nice mention of my book, The Happiness Project, here! I very much appreciate those kind words and you shinning a spotlight on my work!! Thanks and best wishes,
Gretchen

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Susan Lee - FL April 28, 2010 at 4:23 am

Yup, my name is Susan and I talk to strangers. The 12 step program doesn’t work on me, I’m hooked. I can proudly say that I get it from my Dad, who died a few months ago. Oh, and if the stranger has a dog, forget it…..I’ll catch up with ya later.

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Julia May 5, 2010 at 1:55 pm

People always think I’m just a cat person but I always had a dog growing up, I just don’t want the responsibility now. So whenever I see a dog, I always say hello to the dog and its owner. It’s amazing how some people get put out by this and just keep walking and yank their dog away. I think hey, if you’re going out on the street with a cute dog, be prepared for people to ooh and awe over him/her! I love the people who stop and chat and let my son (who’s pretty dog-phobic after being knocked down by an off-leash dog when he was little) greet the dog too if he wants to. He told me one day that each positive encounter he has with a dog makes him feel better about them—so thanks to all the friendly dog owners who brighten our day and help my son get over his fear. (And a pox on owners who walk around with dogs off-leash!)
As for making friends from chatting, we met my son’s best friend (since he was 2.5 years old, they’re almost 9 now) old because I started talking with her mom as they were spontaneously playing at the park. I’m so glad I did!

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Jack June 19, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Although I think that’s a nice story to share consider that introverts/shy/and or loners can be made uncomfortable by such small talk. I also cannot believe how rude it would be to ask any stranger(shy or extroverted or any personality) where they are from, WHY are they here and who their mother is. That’s the kind of grilling cops give to criminals. Besides that, though, I like your effort towards pleasantness. I applaud you for that. (Sorry for the bad writing English is not my first language)

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