The other night, I was out for dinner with my friends. We had planned to go dancing. But over the course of our meal, one by one they dropped off. Too tired, getting up early the next day…

It’s interesting what happens when you have been looking forward to something and then it doesn’t happen.

I live in a village in the middle of nowhere with one one access road still standing. Apart from work and my women’s workshops and events, I do not meet a lot of people. So the prospect of going out in town, albeit rare, is always a highlight.

So I decided to be brave and go alone…(insert shocked and scared smiley)!!!

I went to a cafe and sat at the bar. The place was still quiet, with people still having their last bits to eat. I didn’t know anyone. I ordered a glass of wine.

I decided to conduct a little social experiment. I would sit here, smile invitingly and see how long it would take for someone (anyone, male or female) to talk to me.

I sat there for 2 hours.

Not a single person talked to me (besides the ‘excuse me’ to place an order for drinks).

I left the bar and went home.

I must admit I was quite surprised, even shocked by this. When I told my girlfriends they pointed out that the bar was probably not the best place. Maybe. But I am pretty sure I would have a similar experience elsewhere.

This experience of course triggered a lot of questions. Personal (was it me? – nah! I looked hot that evening), social (does nobody do this? – some people I know chat to just to about anyone), demographical (was it the age group or the fact that many were Luxembourgish? – they were happily chatting to each other though), geographical (is this because it’s Luxembourg – maybe because you don’t really know in what language to start as there are so many possibilities)…

Why don’t we talk to strangers?

Last week I was in town for a doctor’s appointment. I was in the central station area, not the most pretty and safe place in Luxembourg. When I came out of the doctor’s office, I wasn’t sure whether I should turn left or right. Suddenly a woman approached and asked me for directions (in Luxembourgish). I guided her and since we were going in the same direction, walked alongside each other for several minutes, chatting about nothing in particular. It was pleasant. It made me smile. It made me happy.

Studies confirm that interaction with strangers actually improves our experience of for example a plane ride, a bus commute or a wait at the doctor’s office.

It looks like most of us actually enjoy social interaction with strangers. The reason why we do not approach them is because when we imagine the experience beforehand, we picture it as unpleasant. Or out of fear of rejection – we seem to put the odds at 50-50. The study data however shows that most attempts at connection succeeded.

I have many examples of such successful connections.
I met a girl on a train from Lisbon to Porto and we are still in touch.
I talked to a girl in my Italian class many years ago and we are still friends now.

Our phones and headphones allow us to escape, to put up a barrier and avoid any human interaction. And society has unfortunately given many negative examples and potential dangers of meeting someone you don’t know.

But I think we need to go back to basics:

  • set your intention for the interaction (ie that it will be pleasant)
  • put your positive energy on (ie smile, be open,…)
  • prepare a few sentences that are universal, not invasive, non-committal
  • the only expected outcome you should have is to have a pleasant interaction
  • go with the flow
  • if it doesn’t work, it’s ok, move on

I wasn’t looking for a particular connection at the bar. I simply wanted to have a nice time. I had an ‘interesting’ time.

And next time I go to a bar, I will conduct the experiment of approaching strangers and striking up a conversation.

More reading and watching on the subject:

Kio Stark Ted talk about talking to strangers.

A few tips on how to talk to strangers.

A little example of how to meet perfect strangers and turn it into an art project.