Last time I put the spotlight on a few famous spiritual leaders that have (at least) one thing in common: travel, and the superpowers it teaches us to wield. This time I promised to share some of the methods I use to cultivate those “superpowers” and I think it’s fitting to start with the most basic of them.
What is social bravery?
This is a special type of bravery, because it shatters an anxiety that almost all of us feel on a daily basis. We’re trained not to talk to strangers, and many people feel nervous, uncomfortable or downright petrified to approach someone they don’t already know. I always did, and though I’ve had to do it many times in my nonprofit work, it’s still something I feel the need to work on.
Last time I talked about social bravery in the context of getting assistance with unexpected problems when traveling—asking for directions, recommendations, or essentials like water or gasoline. But the real power of social bravery is to make friends and grow your network. There’s something to be said for asking locals where the best restaurant is, but how much cooler is it if you then meet a local couple there for dinner, learn traditional dances from their friend, and enjoy free drinks because the bartender once visited your home town?
This is where social bravery becomes a superpower. If you tend to make friends wherever you go, put people at ease, learn their stories and share things that are interesting or amusing – when will you ever be in trouble?
Right, but it’s hard.
That’s what I thought. But it can be learned! It’s a skill you can train. I decided to train it in two phases, by setting simple goals for myself. Phase 1? Talk to three strangers.
Yep, just three. But wait, there are rules – many strangers don’t count. This includes:
- Anyone whose job is to talk to you. Cashiers, waiters – they’re paid to be nice to you. Making extra small talk with them can be a good warm-up, but that’s all.
- Anyone you’re introduced to. If you have an introducer, they’re not strangers. Cowboy up and find a someone of your own!
- People you have a reason to talk to. If you’re both at a party or business seminar you have a mutual interest in meeting new people. You’re not actually forced to confront your fears.
Conversely, strangers you want to ask on a date do count (as long as they don’t break Rule 3, which now includes singles/matchmaking events). Strangers are strangers.
So who were my three?
I actually spoke to more than three, but some were only so casual or brief I didn’t count them. My three victories were:
Guy with book and egg roll. I spotted him reading at my favorite Vietnamese cafe, walked up and had a great conversation about Wonder Boys.
Women with sense of humor at art museum. We were in the same gallery so I commented on one of the pieces and struck up a conversation. Laughter ensued!
College guy with no clue about rugs. We were both in the rug aisle at a department store and he was heartbroken by the prices. I butted in and recommended that he check out some consignment stores.
These three interactions led to great conversations. In each one, I gained something out of the experience—and not always what I expected. The rug guy is the best example. When I overheard him protesting about the prices, I swooped in thinking my consignment shop recommendations would make his day. He didn’t have the slightest interest. He did, however, want my opinion on whether the tags in front of him were comparable to other stores. He seemed to appreciate that coming from me because I’m slightly older. He and his college-age friend had never decorated an apartment before, so my experience added value to his evening.
That’s an important double-lesson: first, don’t go in with a plan of what will happen (that will just lead to not actually listening to the person, and seeming phony). Second, never think of a conversation as “bothering” someone. If you pay attention to body language you will know when they are out of time (looking at the door, at their friend/partner, at their book, etc.) and you won’t overstay your welcome. In the meantime just be friendly and helpful and they’ll actually be glad you took the time to talk to them out of the blue.
Notice how I didn’t name any of my three successes? That’s because I didn’t get any names. Phase 1 is a starting exercise, and the fact that you’ll never see them again is actually a boon, because it means there’s less pressure.
But in the real world, a one-shot conversation is like handing out your business card and then never answering the phone. It gets you nowhere.
So for Phase 2, I’ll be talking to three more strangers – but this time, I have to sustain the conversation long enough to make a lasting connection. This could be trading contact info, friending each other on Facebook or making followup plans of some kind. I might have to talk to a lot more than three people to make three connections. There might even be train wrecks along the way. Whatever the results are, I’ll be sure to share them here along with what I learned. In the meantime, if you have tips for how to overcome social phobias or make better connections with strangers, please share!
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