I was raised by people who liked to talk to strangers.
The combination of their Greek ancestry and the fact they were both born and raised in the boroughs at a time when neighborhoods in New York City were truly small towns developed in both of them an ability to strike up a conversation with whomever might be standing next to them. My father was truly the star in this department, with my mother a close second.
As a painfully shy young girl I generally found it mortifying.
Until the day I graduated high school and found myself living in a new city without friends, left with no choice but to take the lessons I had been gifted and put them into action.
It didn’t take me long to learn that asking a simple question accompanied by a smile had the potential to melt ice between two strangers.
When I took a job selling radio advertising, I had no choice but to hone those skills.
As an advertising executive I got paid for talking to strangers and making friends – whether that started on the phone or in person.
What had started as a way of surviving life in a new city, developed into something that not only helped to pay the bills, but became something I grew to love and discovered added a dimension to life.
I viewed talking to strangers as an adventure.
I never knew who I might meet – new connections, new friends, or someone I might fall in love with.
Sometimes it was a way to pass the time. Striking up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to me on a cross country flight I got to learn about people who lived outside my bubble of work, play and friends, simply by talking and sharing each other’s story.
Talking to strangers is how one builds a network – personally and/or professionally. But what I’m finding is that one of my favorite pastimes is becoming increasingly challenging. For one simple reason. It’s a lot harder to make eye contact.
Everyone – and I mean everyone – young and old – wherever they are – planes, trains, grocery lines, elevators, walking across Broadway – has their head bent down over their smartphone, out of the moment and engrossed in whatever is scrolling across their screen.
It’s unsettling and it’s sad.
An interconnected world is supposed to be about connecting – online and offline. Technology is at its best when it enhances our lives and interactions, not replaces them.
Case in point is what I have noticed when using Via, a rideshare App in Manhattan.
Technology will let you book your ride and keep you up to the minute on when your driver will pick you up in a clean “professionally chauffered vehicle.”
That’s when truly amazing things happen!
The driver greets you by name. People will look up to see who else is getting in. And if you smile and perhaps ask a question, an equally amazing thing happens – people will put away their smartphone and talk – with strangers!
Of course once you start talking you’re no longer strangers. You find your commonalities. You learn things. Maybe you make a new friend or business contact. Maybe it is just a moment.
People always ask me how I know so many people. The answer is simple. I do something quite retro. I talk to strangers. Online and offline.