April 29, 2014

Do Talk to Strangers

There is a beautiful scene at the beginning of Forrest Gump, where Forrest is reluctant to climb up the steps of the school bus on his first day of school, saying his mother told him not to talk to strangers. Then his face erupts in a smile as he comes upon the solution. He introduces himself to the bus driver, and she introduces herself back to him. Satisfied, he pronounces that now they're no longer strangers, and he goes and finds a seat.

If you never read a philosophy book in your life, you should probably watch Forrest Gump. It is chock full of brilliant quotes and wisdom for the ages.

The scene above speaks to me so well, I think, because I can speak to its truth after years of living abroad.

Back home, you tend to live in your own little world without much need to move out of your comfort zone. You have some friends you socialize with, you know where to buy milk and pump gas, and you don't have much time talking to strangers.

When you move abroad, your world is turned upside down. You know no one, you have to rebuild your life from scratch in terms of figuring out where to run your daily errands, you are in desperate need of some clothes hangers, and all of a sudden you find yourself with a lot of time, because you're not signed up for any activities yet. (And, if you're lucky, because you now have full-time domestic help.)

I can't say these street vendors in Johannesburg were not still strangers after I took this picture,
because traffic moved too fast for me to ask their names. But I did talk with them.

If "Don't Talk to Strangers" is what your mother sent you out into the world with, then "Don't Talk to Street Vendors" is what most every South African will tell you upon arrival in their country. And, especially, "Don't roll down your window!" But you also still desperately need those clothes hangers, having come up empty after countless trips to various stores, and so you do the only thing you can do: You roll down your window, and you talk to the street vendors. You discover, perhaps to your surprise, that they don't bite off your head or steal your money or cheat you, and so you just keep going on your quest to convert strangers into friends, or if not friends, then at least acquaintances that may be helpful to you in many different ways. You talk to people you would not normally have talked to back home, and you are amazed how quickly your newfound circle of friends grows. You do this until you've settled in, accumulated enough friends, and have no need to convert any more strangers.

Which is a pity. You shouldn't ever stop. Because something else has happened too, along the way, something you might not have planned on. You discover that you LIKE talking to strangers and finding out their story and telling them yours. Not only do you like it, you also become quite GOOD at it. You begin looking at other people in an entirely new light. You are CURIOUS about them. You start a conversation in the checkout lane, where in the past you might have averted your gaze, afraid to overstep some boundary. You bring people together who didn't know each other before. You become altogether HAPPIER, satisfied at the end of each day with the success of your conquests.

If you think I'm making all this up and cannot be trusted, then you might listen to the experts.

According to this recent article in the New York Times, numerous studies have proven that talking to strangers does, in fact, make you (and, incidentally, the stranger) happier. Behavioral scientists conducted experiments with random people (by bribing them with $5 Starbucks gift cards, I might add, leaving me slightly miffed that this study wasn't conducted in my area), and wherever they were - on the subway, on the street, in a waiting room - the people who made contact and engaged others around them rather than looking away reported being happier afterwards.

So, whether you're an expat or not, but especially if you're an expat, DO talk to strangers. It will make you happier, and it makes the world a happier place.

I'll now close with another Forrest Gump quote, unearthed by my friend Heather of 2Summers.net in a recent comment on her blog:

And that's all I have to say about that!