The Stranger Problem

August 27, 2013

In the PR world it happens to be our job to talk to strangers. More than that, it is our job to turn strangers into friends, business partners, resources, mentors, colleagues, etc. Finding ways to strike up conversations with people, journalists in particular, we don’t know is what we do every day in hopes they will reciprocate and eventually ‘befriend’ us. If I don’t attempt contact with a stranger while on the job, I’m not doing my job.

So, you can just imagine how surprised I was when The Onion did a feature on the ‘stranger problem.’  Despite my job, they put it perfectly in perspective, albeit very sarcastically and not at all factual, but still spot on:

Citing how devastatingly uncomfortable it makes people feel, a new report released by the Stanford University Sociology Department revealed Wednesday that it’s never okay to just start talking to someone you don’t know.

 The report, which analyzed numerous conversations that took place over a nine-month period from September of last year through May, states that approaching a complete and total stranger and saying “Beautiful day,” “That’s nice, where did you get that?” or “Hello” is, under no circumstance, acceptable.

 In addition, just because you are sitting next to someone you don’t know on a bus or airplane, that doesn’t give you any right to talk to that person, even if he or she is reading a book you once read. The study goes on to state that talking to an unfamiliar person in a setting where the individual essentially can’t escape the conversation is “one of the cruelest things one human being can do to another human being.”

Many of us are in jobs much like mine, but the overwhelming majority of us clock out and check out, avoiding people we don’t know at every corner. The ‘stranger problem’ is a BIG problem – it’s a phobia that’s quickly becoming a societal issue. Our fear of making contact with a stranger is stifling our social networks, limiting opportunities, breaking down communication, isolating and dividing us. By engaging with strangers we grow our friend circles and business ties, learn how to find middle ground, appreciate experiences we haven’t experienced ourselves, empathize greater, and ultimately become more open minded.


So, what is my point with all this hippie, ‘one love’ banter? My point is to challenge you to talk to strangers; talk to as many as you can; on a daily basis. I bet you’ll be surprised the impact it will have on an astonishing number of aspects in your life. We all have something in common: a book we read, the town we are from, a cat/dog lover, similar fashion sense, favorite coffee shop, the list goes on and on. You will make new friends, open new doors, gain confidence, smile more, and the best part of all – you’ll likely make someone’s day, week, month, year or a lifetime. Trust your neighbor and reach out an open hand. But to be safe, let’s still stick to our Mom’s mantra and don’t take candy from a stranger.

Pro-tip: the forced interactions will feel very uncomfortable at first and many people will think you are crazy and may try to avoid you at all costs. It requires a conscious effort that will often put you in uncomfortable situations with awkward endings. But it becomes easy over time and the rewards far outweigh the discomfort you may endure. Let me help you get started – here are a few self-help articles to get you over the hump:

11 Ways to Turn Strangers into Friends

Be a Great Conversation Starter: Talk to Strangers with Ease

How To Start Conversations with Complete Strangers in a Natural Way

And hey, if it turns out I’m wrong, just stick to these words of wisdom: “Your comfort zone is there for a reason. It’s so you can stay comfortable. If someone breaches that by saying hello to you, that person is the asshole, not you. Remember that.”*

Good luck out there and let me know how it goes – awkward encounters and all 🙂



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