I would say it took until I was about 20 to realize that all those “Don’t talk to strangers!” warnings mama gives you start to wear off and instead become a crutch if you continue to heed them.
I’m definitely a quiet person. I sit back and observe. Part of that is me naturally lacking confidence, the other part is just me fearing bad impressions or the misinterpretation of a situation. But I’m also a person who hates idleness and who wants to learn and grow now that all my physical growing has ended. It’s hard to just sit in a room if everyone’s just sitting in that room and no one is speaking. I start to form burning urges to say something – anything – that would take off the strain of silence. But lately I’ve been getting those urges in times that aren’t silent, in times that are totally foreign and uncomfortable. It sometimes frightens me, this uncontrolled adrenaline rush of opening my mouth and just saying something.
I have thus become a person not afraid to talk to strangers. Correction: I am afraid, but I tremble with intimidation and do it anyway. What’s more is this is something I have chosen to become. Talking to strangers as a child can be a dangerous sport. I don’t just mean that because of the crazy people out there today who offer kids candy and drive white vans. It can be dangerous because, as a child, you’re too easily malleable and your parents need to have some control over who puts ideas into your head before you’re able to make your own experienced judgments. I say experienced and not educated because I’ve come to realize that so much more of life is learned by experience and not in a classroom. In fact, the best parts of life are learned that way. But when you grow up enough that you’re starting to get an idea of who you are and what questions to ask, you start to realize that your learning experience – with a mental filter in hand – comes much more rapidly when you engage with a complete stranger.
Just this past month, I started realizing how many strangers I had befriended by simply going to the same restaurant during the same times. Some of them are guests, some of them are employees, and some of them I still don’t know their names – but I know their stories. These befriended strangers made me realize how we can so subconsciously bond with people who may not have that much in common with us. It got me thinking to actively making friends when I go places, and so I began engaging with random people more regularly and became enthralled with the results.
Then, finally, it occurred to me: How much of my life has changed because of these strangers?
That’s when I realized how much solo traveling has opened my mind, thanks to talking with strangers. Imagine traveling the world alone – as I have this last year – and not daring to talk with a soul you don’t know. I would have been so lonely. But would I had chosen to talk to those people otherwise? Outside of that situation? I can guarantee you No. Most of those conversations I had weren’t even in English. But just because I’m bilingual doesn’t mean I didn’t have conversations outside of any of my languages, because I did. I spoke with a woman on a train from Hungary who knew nothing but German. She had taken a train all the way to Budapest to save a rescue dog and she asked me – the American stranger! – to watch her things as she walked the dog down the night train and doted on his lingering illnesses.
If I had not tried to talk to strangers, I would never have gotten to exchange my experiences in West Africa with people who have never left their village. I showed them pictures of home on my phone and they showed me their kitchens and how to cook my favorite local dishes. They told me about how wonderful they think America is and I told them of how Americans think of Africa. Then we exchanged truths about how the African life is all they know and many of them love it, and I told them how much suffering does exist even in America… I learned that poverty is sometimes a blessing when you’re not living up against things you can’t have, and they learned that not every person from America is really as lucky as outsiders dream they are.
But you don’t have to go to exotic places to gain such insight and perspective; you just have to seek out a person you would never normally choose to speak with. Someone who is a much different age, who dresses much differently, who looks really outgoing or really timid. Someone who clearly practices different religious beliefs, evidenced by their prayer mat in a public place, their symbols of faith, their burka. You might be amazed at what you will learn. You might begin to question everything you once knew, wonder what the purest truths are, see yourself in a much different light.
So, sorry mama, but I think it’s time we all start talking to strangers.