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Don't Be a Stranger

Yesterday I got an email from a friend suggesting I unpack the topic of getting over the fear of talking to strangers, inspired by an article in Fast Company titled How (and why) you should get better at talking to strangers, by Stephanie Vozza. Because I have deep respect for my friend, and was incredibly curious as to why she thought this was a subject I should tackle, I read it.

meme for talking to strangers

Truth be told, the topic wasn’t grabbing me until I looked at a new study published in the Psychological and Cognitive Sciences journal that was referenced in the article…and although the study itself was a mind-numbingly scientific read, it was this simple quote from Bill Nye the Science Guy, that got me hooked: “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”

The study noted “Everyday life offers many opportunities to learn from others. The fellow commuter on the bus, the shopper in line behind you, your office colleague—“everyone,” as Nye notes—has learned something unique through life experience that could be shared with someone else through conversation.” Yes…makes perfect sense, and yet is it enough motivation to overcome the fear of talking to strangers that so many of us humans share?

“So many of us have been raised to see strangers as dangerous and scary,” writes Joe Keohane for The Atlantic. “ What would happen if we instead saw them as potential sources of comfort and belonging? Indeed…what would happen?

In his article, Keohane talks about psychologist Gillian Sandstrom who believes people simply don’t know how to talk to strangers, so she set out to teach them. “In collaboration with the now-defunct London group called Talk to Me, Sandstrom ran a series of events that aimed to show people how enjoyable talking with strangers could be—and to learn more about why people were so hesitant to do it. She has since developed some techniques to help allay these fears. For instance, she tells people to follow their curiosity—notice something, compliment a person, or ask them a question. Generally, though, she just lets people figure it out themselves. Once they get over the initial hump, they find it comes to them quite naturally. “You can’t shut them up,” she says. “By the end they don’t want to stop talking.”

Nancy Mendelson hertelier

It never occurred to me that entrepreneurs might have difficulty talking with strangers, until I read a piece for the Harvard Business Review aptly titled How Entrepreneurs Can Overcome Their Fear of Talking to Strangers. Authors Kuzeyhan Ozdemir and Irina Cozma offer up some strategies that can help any of us to get more comfortable talking with strangers:

  1. First, understand why you feel awkward reaching out to new people. Look inward to see if you’ve been conditioned to see strangers as dangerous and question your self-limiting beliefs.

  2. Keep your broader “why” in mind. Understand why you need to talk to a customer, client, or mentor. If you want to speak with a customer, remind yourself that speaking with them will help you gain insights about how the target group perceives your idea and how that can help you get better at your job.

  3. Do some pre-work. Look them up online or find mutual connections who can introduce you to new people. Becoming familiar with them will help you feel at ease when you meet them in-person.

  4. Prepare a script. You don’t have to rote-learn the script but use it as a guide to help you navigate the conversation more comfortably.

  5. Learn to regulate your emotions. If you notice difficult feelings show up in your body, use breathing or mindfulness techniques to calm yourself down.

In thinking about my friend who suggested I unpack this topic to begin with…we were strangers once!

“There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven't yet met.” –– William Butler Yeats


Nico Sheers
Nico Sheers
Nov 02, 2023

It's interesting how strangers on a bus are much more likely to talk to each other than on the subway. I guess there is something threatening about being subterranean.


Sharing this good advice for community-building

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