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.