I have a friend, an extrovert of the highest order, who will talk to a stranger anywhere, anytime. On an escalator. In a doctor's waiting room. At the checkout line. In the stadium stands.
She seems genetically incapable of turning down an opportunity to ask a question or make small talk. Most of us – and I include myself in this category – tend to keep to ourselves in public settings. We've perfected the Don't Approach vibes by staring straight ahead or fumbling with our smartphones or burying ourselves in a book. The idea that we could actually initiate a conversation ... well, that's bold.
Watching her in action is like glimpsing that first ray of sunshine at dawn. It's bright and promising and challenging all at the same time. Who knows what might happen?
"That's a pretty scarf," she'll remark to a total stranger. "Did you buy it here?"
Or: "I'm not sure I like the team's new uniforms. Do you?" Or: "I'm so happy we're finally getting cooler weather."
Everyone's got a story, she believes, so why not coax it out? She also thinks that people respond positively to attention. When you smile or nod or exchange a few words, the wait in line feels smoother, the commute goes by faster, the day begins to look better. In other words, a simple act of friendliness can be a mood changer.
I've been thinking about my friend's gregariousness for two different reasons. First, I read several reports about how most Americans feel lonely despite the fact that, in this era of instant communication, we can reach out for a digital connection at any time. Everyone, from CEOs to mental health experts, is calling it a loneliness epidemic.
One survey found that almost half of Americans say they sometimes or always feel alone or left out. The loneliest group might surprise you, too: Generation Z, adults between the ages of 18 and 22. (Isn't this the age for partying?) Another report revealed that millennials, the demographic just older than the Zers, were the most likely to say they were lonely always or most of the time.
The second reason I've been mulling over our exchanges with strangers – or lack thereof – turned out to be a review of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, "Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know." In it, the journalist/author/podcaster looks at the many examples and possibilities of miscommunication. The book, however, isn't so much a meditation on what can go wrong when we talk to the person next to us on the Metrorail but a survey of people making bad judgment calls when they interact.
In a circuitous way, Gladwell confirms what parents have been telling children for eons: Don't talk to strangers. Implicit in this warning? Making friendly with people you don't know can only lead to trouble, and who knows what else.
This may be good advice – but only in certain circumstances. Practicing it like a religion doesn't always serve us well. There's something to be said for reaching out to the unknown, for breaking out of our comfort zone. Social connections, however brief, work wonders for both our mental well-being and social cohesion.
Tiptoeing out of self-imposed isolation, my friend says, makes her less grumpy. She thinks it does the same for others. "People just want to connect," she insists. "You don't even have to be funny or witty, just polite and interested." We all want to be recognized, she adds, we want to count.
I'm not advocating you interrupt a napping passenger or a reading commuter, but a little chitchat can go a long way in an age where too many of us don't bother with meeting our neighbors or have forgotten how to talk about the weather with the supermarket cashier.
(Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.)