A few weeks ago, I somehow came across an article with a headline that caught my eye: REPORT: IT’S NOT OKAY TO JUST START TALKING TO PEOPLE YOU DON’T KNOW. The article went on to explain that a study conducted by a major university analyzed conversations between strangers over a nine-month period and concluded that conversations with complete strangers is not acceptable.
This headline caught my eye because I am constantly embarking upon conversations with strangers in the grocery store, the library, Target, or while waiting for a table at a restaurant. You name the place, I have started conversations. As you can imagine, it was with great relief that I noticed that the article was attributed to The Onion, a digital media organization that offers completely satirical news stories. They were fake news before fake news was a thing. The difference between The Onion and Katie Couric telling the world as she hosted NBC’s coverage of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics that the Dutch people are so good at speed skating because the people ice skate to work is that The Onion is unapologetically fake, and hilariously funny.
The truth of the matter is that, though the article was tongue-in-cheek, it really almost never works to strike up conversations with complete strangers. Ask me. I know. Does it stop me, however? I am sorry to say that thus far it has not.
You might recall that I recently mentioned, for example, that I complimented a man for opening the car door for his wife. It turns out that it was a rare example of an unsolicited conversation that seemed to end fine.
I have many examples of times when my conversations haven’t panned out. Take the time on the cruise ship when I said to the stranger standing next to me in the buffet line, “Have you ever seen so many delicious looking items in your life?” She gave me a dour look and replied, “I am legally blind, and can’t see the food at all.” Or on the same ship, when I was carrying an ice cream cone to my room and said to the man riding in the elevator with me, “I can’t seem to go by the ice cream machine without making myself a cone,” and he replied, “Well, then you’re just going to get fat.” Maybe the worst example was when I asked the cashier at the grocery store if her shift was almost over (something I often ask as if it is ANY of my business). When she responded that she was going home soon, I cheerfully said, “Well that’s nice. You have the whole rest of the day to enjoy.” Her response? “My husband passed away a month ago. I actually hate going home and having all that time to fill without him.” Really….how do you come back from a gaffe like that?
I have fallen flat on my face in so many unsolicited conversations that I have really been working with myself to stop doing it. I know the article was fake, but what it said is absolutely true: “Ninety-five percent of the time, the people being talked to experience an extreme spike in anxiety. The only thoughts going through their heads during these unwanted conversations with strangers are ‘Stop talking to me. I don’t know you. Please go away.’’
Perhaps even worse than the people who put me (properly) in my place by a response are the ones who simply look at me like I am either nuts or a pain in the rear end, or perhaps both. I’m afraid that look is very familiar to me. Familiar enough that you would think that I would have learned by now.
I will continue my quest to learn to keep my mouth shut, even if the person in line next to me is wearing the same t-shirt as I. I will remind myself that The Onion is correct when they state that “the study confirmed that in 0 percent of cases do individuals ever want to be spoken to by someone they don’t know. And if you see me coming, definitely look the other direction.