Chris Markiewicz's Blog
Every Monday – thoughts, observations and ideas that hold up a mirror to who & how we are

Talk to strangers? I should be so lucky


“There are no such things as strangers, only friends we haven’t met yet”  Anon 

I have recently found myself talking to strangers.

 As a youngster I was always told not to do so, that it was potentially dangerous and could lead to awful outcomes. Wise advice for a child to heed.

The main catalyst for my new found willingness to do so is Murphy, my dog. Whilst out walking him in recent months I have probably connected with at least fifty people that I will never have spoken with before. The one thing they all have in common is that they all possess leads with varying types of canine attached. In fact, the owners are as varied as the dogs.

Granted, conversation so far hasn’t extended much beyond doggy matters, however, what I have discovered is that these are predominantly affable, apparently genuine people – far from the dangerous types warned against when I was younger.

 I’m reminded of the early part of the film Borat where the naïve, hapless “Kazakh” arrives in New York and attempts to strike up conversations with people on the street and on subway trains. Reactions he gets from the New Yorkers vary from being blanked, being abused, to people even running away full pelt from this “dangerous stranger”.

Although it was a fictional film, the truth behind it saddens me – that trust can be so lacking and suspicion be what drives people so much of the time.

Whilst  I think it absolutely appropriate to warn children against engaging with unknown adults – especially if approached by them, I wonder what opportunities may be lost as we carry such warnings into our “grown up” years? This is hardly helped by the media constantly feeding us messages that say the world is a dangerous, hazardous place to be.

I wasn’t born of English parents, yet I seem to have taken on some of the famous English reserve when out and about. When someone tries to engage with me on a train or elsewhere in public I’m all too often minimalist in my response and politely cut the conversation short with monosyllabic replies. That is, unless I’m in the mood to do otherwise – which sometimes is the case, but rarely.

Ingrid, my partner on the other hand, regularly regales me with her tales of interesting characters she’d met on the underground train or at our local supermarket etc. This can often be with the children in tow, so there is a risk that they become confused as to whether or not it’s OK to speak to strangers. The discovery that seems to come from Ingrid’s encounters is that the vast majority of “strangers” are actually really nice people.

The psychologist and author Professor Richard Wiseman, asserts that people who strike up conversations with strangers tend to be luckier. He claims that such interactions leave us open to making new connections through finding things in common and creating opportunities, whether personal, social or business related.

A good friend of mine first met his wife on a rail platform, another met his in an airline queue (although, to be fair, that one ended in divorce)! I wonder how many business connections or career moves will have started as small talk on  flights or rail journeys  for instance?

So, this of course leaves me pondering what opportunities I may have foregone over the years and decades? What if I had tried to strike up a conversation with every co-traveller I’d sat close to for example? There have been plenty of them – all kinds of people from drunks  to businesspeople to a Buddhist monk on a flight from Sydney to Bali– what may have come of that, had I got chatting? I may have been blissfully wafting around in orange robes by now. Mind you, it’s never been my favourite hue.

Ingrid often points out the irony that people will sit on a train chatting to others  miles away on a mobile phone yet wouldn’t dream of connecting with the person beside them.

So, I set myself a challenge – to take a leaf out of her book and engage more with strangers. My dog is certainly helping me find the courage, but I can’t necessarily take Murphy with me wherever I go. Perhaps rather than compare and discuss dogs, I could compare and discuss briefcases or mobile phones……

 …..then again, perhaps  not.

 I have a request. Give me a nudge if you can – I still need encouragement, even inspiration. Have you had unexpected positive outcomes from chance conversations when you’ve been out and about? Do you consider yourself a lucky person as a result (as per Prof Wiseman’s theory)? Any stories of others who’ve had amazing encounters? Leave a comment, it could help – not just me, but others as well.

Meanwhile, I’m off to walk the dog.           


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4 Responses to “Talk to strangers? I should be so lucky”

  1. Hi Chris, it is a standing joke in our house that I often make ‘Train Friends’, ‘Bus friends’ and always ‘Queue Friends’. Once in Marks and Spencers I got chatting to an old lady and ended up going for a cup of tea with her and looking at photos of her grandchildren!

    On another occasion I was in the queue at Sainsburys talking to the lady behind me. I mentioned I had been looking for some gold christmas napkins and couldn’t get them in store. She had bought some in another shop, didn’t like them and they were in her car waiting to be returned. We then did a deal in the car park and we were both happy!

    A friend of mine was chatting to a stranger on a train who turned out to be the owner of a hotel in Nottingham. They were in need of some Customer Service training and she is a Customer Service Trainer…..years later he is still a client of hers.
    I usually find that talking to strangers opens up new opportunities and adds interest to my day.

  2. I was travelling from LLandudno Junction to Conwy across the beautiful Conwy River when I was about to get off. I looked up and there was a very tall and full looking Monk full of the joys of life. Being me I said ‘Must have been a really good party – stag party was it?’ The monk smiled and looked at me.

    The Monk’s response startled me ‘No I come from France, where I live in a closed order where we don’t speak to each other or to anyone on the outside either’ He went on to say ‘I am here to join another order in retreat but Conwy fills me with such joy that I felt I wanted to express it through conversation which I do not normally do’

    I learnt a gift that day, because I talk a lot I often miss out on the silence that often makes or adds to a beautiful place or an occasion that does not need noise.

    The monk and I spent around twenty-five minutes in the Car Park talking about this and that and then as if we had known each other a long long time went our separate ways – with absolutely no intention of meeting again.

    His unknown gift to me – appreciate what I have around me more and just let it soak in without ruining it with words.

  3. Hi Chris, I got really involved in talking to a stranger once, on a coach replacing a train back from Bristol on my way home from an NLP course. While waiting for the coach this man asked me where I’d been and I told him all about the NLP course and he was so interested that he wanted to do the course himself, so I gave him the website. I don’t know if he did it or not. When the coach came after quite a while I went and found a seat next to the window and just wanted to watch the countryside go by, but he sat next to me and nattered all the way back to London! So he got the view and I had to look at him, and listen to him – I can’t remember anything about him other than I wish he didn’t sit there! It might have been a positive outcome for him, but for me I considered it unlucky!

  4. As the responses so far suggest, we are more likely to meet new people while travelling, ie when we depart our home territory. Is that because it feels safer in some way, or we feel more adventurous? Or because we don’t have our usual connections around us?
    The weather is always a good, safe opener, and also commenting on something they have – wandering around London with a musical instrument case creates lots of conversations. Something going wrong, a funny incident (including at your expense) are all good entrees too.
    It doesn’t have to be the start of a lifelong relationship; and it doesn’t have to be a success every time; younger people especially seem to find casual conversation difficult – “don’t talk to strangers”!! The saddest part of this for me is that making yourself available to help a young person/child in distress is virtually a criminal act. 99.99% of people are OK.

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