How to talk to strangers

Being nice to strangers is never easy and being polite in public never comes without some training. But it’s still shocking how incivility and rudeness have become so common even as technology makes communication easier.

Today was communication day at the YLNI Leadership Institute — led by Anthony Juliano of Asher Agency and the Soundbite Back blog. One topic that generated heat was the misuse of cell phones and texting devices while other people are nearby.

Stories of annoyance included people who blabbed on their phones in line at airports and colleagues who checked email on their BlackBerrys during meetings.

How can this be? Do they not see all the people standing around them?

Maybe not.

Whether out of fear or out of selfishness, Americans have created a culture in which we may meet only those people we choose to meet. We have less and less incidental contact with those around us.

If you live in a suburban home and work in a downtown building, you can complete your commute from bed to desk without meeting anyone you do not know. You can get into your car in your attached garage, drive in isolation with thousands of other motorists, find your space in the parking garage and walk across the skyway right into your office building. The first person you talk to is the same guy you see on the elevator every day.

So when we’re thrust into a group of strangers at a bank or coffee shop — when we don’t use the drive-through — many of us reach for the familiarity of our phone or BlackBerry. We have forgotten how to talk to strangers. We’re so used to being isolated that we can easily forget the real people standing right next to us.

For those of you who are guilty as charged, you need to practice civility. Push yourself into situations in which you have to talk to strangers. Here are some things I try to do:

  • Avoid drive-though windows.
  • Don’t use the auto-checkout lines at the grocery store.
  • Park on the street.
  • Turn off your phone and other devices when you are in meetings or other conversations.
  • Above all, whenever you can, walk instead of drive.

Leave comments with your ideas that nudge you into incidental contact with strangers.


  1. Great post, Jon. One thing I’d add, especially for those who have e-mail, text, or web access on their phones. If you sincerely want to interact with other people, there are times–and not just in meetings or when you’re already in a conversation–when you need to leave the phone behind. Don’t even have it on you. It’s too addicting, and too much of an escape. We all have good intentions, but the allure of the phone is just too strong to resist.

    Why is that? Well, conversation isn’t always easy, and the fastest way to opt out is to stare into your phone, appearing to be engrossed in the latest news from the world (which usually involves highbrow stories about Paris Hilton or the quickest way to rock hard abs). Since we’re always waiting for the NEXT thing, the BETTER thing, the NEW thing, it’s hard to resist the urge to check your messages over and over again. This also leads to others NOT talking to us because they think we’re busy, even if all we’re doing is mindlessly skimming the latest headlines.

    The only way to avoid this trap is to put the phone away–out of sight, out of mind. Sure, it’s hard to change habits, and yes, it’s possible that you might miss something–maybe even something urgent. But honestly, how often to you receive a message that absolutely can’t wait? And you don’t have to do this all the time–pick the days and times when it’s least likely that you’ll be needed. Unless you’re in a life-and-death business, you can probably take an hour here and there and disconnect.

    When you have no phone to shield you from the outside world, only then you can open yourself to the possibility of a conversation.


  2. Good point, and well written. You have a new fan! This reminds me of the monologue of a British man to his friend I overheard while sitting in a pub in London, which I took the liberty of writing down:

    “It is not just that you have the technology, it’s what you do with it. You obviously do not realize the full implications of a simple telephone call on your mobile. I am not speaking of the environmental, economic, or even social consequences of such an act… but of the ethical, filial (and in that sense somewhat social), and -I dare say- spiritual consequences. How often is it that you reject the company of your best friend, brother, or mother merely to answer “this damned thing” attached to your belt? Maybe you do grumble about it -quietly, to yourself- or perhaps you apologize swiftly before taking the call. This snubbery of those that you ought to love the most does not go unnoticed, by them or anyone else. Not only does this wound you relationships with those people, but it strikes a blow at the very essence of humanity. Never before has there been so much attention given to those far away, when the ones who love you the most are standing right in front of us, trying to look us in the eye.”
    -Anonymous British man

    I’m not sure I agree with everything he said, but he definitely has a point. Of course he is talking about rejecting the company of the people who “love you the most”, rather than mere strangers. This happens less often, but is more tragic. But the “not talking to strangers” thing is the real epidemic.

    I think it’s true what the band Barenaked Ladies said in one of their songs:

    “If I hide myself wherever I go, am I ever really there?”

    Wherever you are, be all there!


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