Social Bravery

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Anyone you’re introduced to. If you have an introducer, they’re not strangers. Cowboy up and find a someone of your own!
  3. 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.

Phase 2

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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10 thoughts on “Social Bravery

  1. Joel says:


    Great posts so far, I like that you are challenging yourself in this way. What an expression of engagement and spiritual growth!

  2. Perhaps a guide in this endeavor could be to flip the roles of traveler and receiver. Proto-Indo-European was thought to have a single word expressing the reciprocal duties of both guest and host: *ghos-ti. So, you could think about what you would need to do for your strangers if they were approaching you, rather than you them.

    Hail, ye Givers! a guest is come;
    say! where shall he sit within?
    Much pressed is he who fain on the hearth
    would seek for warmth and weal.

    He hath need of fire, who now is come,
    numbed with cold to the knee;
    food and clothing the wanderer craves
    who has fared o’er the rimy fell.

    He craves for water, who comes for refreshment,
    drying and friendly bidding,
    marks of good will, fair fame if ’tis won,
    and welcome once and again.

    –from Havamal

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  7. Interesting and helpful tips, Drew. But what about those of us who suffer from mental illnesses that make social interaction difficult? I don’t have a problem dealing with talking to strangers or making new friends, in fact I have to be brave all the time in dealing with the public and I do a lot of volunteer work with the disabled. It’s the maintaining relationships with new people that can be difficult, especially when personality quirks of mine surface that can make others uncomfortable. I keep my distance in order not to make anyone feel weird. How would I make someone feel strange? I have the tendency, when I’m overly sensitive and self conscious, to talk too much and not be able to pay attention to what other people say. I zone out. This leads others to think I don’t care, that I’m aloof, or rude. Sometimes I’m too aware of what others are not saying to me with words but with their body language and emotions. If the “vibe” they are putting out is off, I leave them alone. If I enter a place where people are just angry and violent, I make a quick getaway. If I go somewhere and I feel someone needs help, I zero in on who is emitting that urgent cry for rescue, or I find someone more capable than I to help them.

    I want to someday really sit down and compare notes with you about this. I know you’re collecting information, impressions, experiences, and more. It does take some balls for the average person to talk to complete strangers, and maybe I’m more brave than the average person because I don’t have a fear of doing that, but keeping friends seems to be a hard thing for me to do. Not because I’m a bad friend, but because perhaps I’m a bit too much to take? Sometimes I can’t help it. I feel the need to back off and give people a break. Sometimes I have to give myself the break.

    Other people are often these entities full of messy emotions and it can hurt to be around them, especially if I cannot do anything to ease their problems. Touching them, much less standing by them, can make me feel like they feel. I have to put out extra efforts to block the feelings others project and keep my mind clear. This is where practicing silence, calm, and meditation comes in handy.

    I am still in the middle of digesting/reading your “What is the Heroic Life?” you just wrote but when I saw the link to this post, it stopped me and I had to respond quickly and thoughtfully. Even exhausted with a cold, my mind suddenly went sharp just now. I hope what I wrote in response made sense. Please respond and share with me your thoughts on this? I have to have apply bravery everyday when dealing with people.

    Especially in normal, everyday atmospheres like grocery stores. Why grocery stores? Unlike being in a bar or restaurant, when people go to the grocery store they are most often in an angry, impatient, frustrated mood and they project this outward in such strength, a sensitive like me will get “hit” by that cloud of intensity. It sucks! But it’s not impossible to handle. Most people don’t understand and get frustrated with me. It doesn’t happen all the time, sometimes I’m fine, it comes and goes, but I can’t explain it away to those who don’t want to understand. So sometimes I hide it so I can be accepted, or don’t let friendships get any closer. I’m revealing it here because I am working hard now to change my life, no, to SAVE my life so I can really live without that pain. Talk about a relentless drive to get over something so I can lead a more fulfilling life? I’m living it, buddy, I’m living it… and I’m making progress.

    I can’t describe to you how wonderfully timely discovering your blog and reconnecting with you has been for me RIGHT NOW. It is like being given back a part of myself that was lost.

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