Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid Of Strangers

The Status Quo

There is a stigma, particularly in Britain, of imposing ourselves upon others. People we don’t know are held at arms length, and for good reason. We’re hardwired from an evolutionary standpoint to be afraid of the ‘other’ — the threat of the unknown has been inbuilt since caveman days dictated a fight or flight response necessary to the predator coming to eat their children.

Yet, knowing we are rarely in true danger today, we still choose to keep a safe distance from others.

On the one hand a fear for our own protection remains, but even greater often is our fear dictated by society that we conform. We fear being seen as weird, or unwanted if we impose ourselves on someone we don’t know. We fear getting in their way — bothering them with our mere presence as we go about our day. How many times have we said ‘sorry’ to someone who actually entered into our pathway.

We have transactional relationships with strangers in shops, ticket offices, medical appointments and through the workplace. But rarely do we speak to someone ‘just because’.

Exceptions to the rule

Only if we’re inquisitive enough about something will we fight the fear of speaking to a stranger. Babies and dogs provide safe territory for these interactions. They create a buffer: it’s much more socially acceptable to ask someone what age their dog or baby is than how old they themselves are.

Similarly, if we see someone with toilet paper stuck to their shoe in the ladies loos, our humanity would speak out — knowing their need is greater than our embarrassment (aka fear) in this particular moment.

Seeing someone in need, or needing someone else’s help are clear and tangible reasons to involve a stranger. Being inquisitive enough about the book they’re reading or where they bought their jacket from might override fear too.

What if we were freer?

My hope and wish in speaking out about this is that we would speak to strangers more. Just because.

In my own experience some of the most valuable, exciting and life giving moments have come from interactions with people who were not yet in my inner circle.

People we don’t yet know have commodities we lack. They have experience, stories, perspectives we don’t. Untapped resources and fountains of knowledge exist all around us, if only we’d seek to find out more.

My experience in a headhunting career broke down the barriers of fear in my mind of speaking to strangers. Day 1 in my role I was expected to pick up the phone to someone — a senior executive based in Germany in a profession I knew nothing about — and tell them about a job I was trying to fill. Why should this person want to speak to me? What did I know? Weren’t they too busy?

Whilst my fears were frequently extremely valid, I quickly learnt the value in just asking. Just asking if they were free to chat quickly. Just asking what their current role was like. Just asking what they were paid. All the way to asking whether they would consider leaving their job and relocating for this new one.

What asking strangers for things, or personal questions about their lives taught me as a very green 21 year old, was that strangers aren’t scary.

They have things you might want, but you have things they might want too.

Connection, empathy, or humour.

Why connecting with others matters

Being able to quickly connect with someone you don’t yet know is a skill everyone should possess. We are also hardwired to belong.

I’ve not had a fear of strangers ever since that first corporate role. So much so to the extent that many parts of my life I am most proud of, or happiest with, have come from chance interactions with strangers.

I got my job because I wasn’t too afraid to ask to speak to someone at an event that I wasn’t really the intended audience for. I’ve been on dates with people I’ve met on the street. I’ve made amazing friends with people I’ve met through chance encounters. I’ve gained mentors and advice from people I’ve reached out to online. Built a support group of women from reaching out to people from a cold LinkedIn mail.

Just ‘asking’ is scary. We don’t want to perceived as a weirdo, or a chancer, or to bother someone. But guess what? A no is as good as a yes in these situations.

They don’t reply? They weren’t ever going to speak to you anyway.

They don’t want to be part of your gang? At least you know.

But guess what is also true?

People are rarely scary when you get to know them. When you find points of mutual connection and provide value to their lives. Whatever their social media presence or exterior posture might indicate, that is rarely reflective of the kind of person they are when you get up close.

Just say hello. Ask the favour. Ask on a date. You just don’t know until you try.

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