One Stranger at a Time

Traveling often makes me think about the images we project. In a new city, nobody knows you, so you can be anybody you want. Blank slates mostly terrify us, but in small doses, they can be liberating. Blank slates, like new beginnings, often create growth. Because, when you can be anybody, why be a shy mouse?

Yes, I’m here to tell you that strangers are the secret to overcoming shyness.

What’s harder to overcome than shyness? Inertia. What’s more difficult to change than that bad habit you’ve been resolving about each of the past three New Years? Other people’s pre-conceived notions and dearly-held opinions about how things are and what box you fit in.

Say you go to the same coffee-shop every day and buy the same cup of coffee from the same 2 or 3 baristas. You’re shy, so you keep it all business – maybe a please and thank you, but no other words that aren’t absolutely neccessary. Over time, you come to envy the light banter some of the other patrons have with the barista, but how do you start? You’re so entrenched in the pattern of not speaking that you don’t even know what you would say. And what if, in your nervousness, you make a mess of it and now the barista thinks you’re weird?

What’s scarier than the monster under the bed? The fear of doing something wrong or messing up in front of the people you have to see every day.

But say you go to another city on a business trip and stop into a new coffee-shop in the morning. This barista doesn’t know that you never say “good morning” to your barista at home. For all this new barista knows about you, you might be the friendliest, happiest, most confident person she’s ever met. It’d be a shame to disappoint her, don’t you think?

So you smile, say good morning. Maybe even comment on the weather. Odds are, this interaction goes perfectly. But even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter, because she doesn’t know who you are, and she’ll never see you again. No risk, lots of reward. Nice. So you do the same thing with the waiter at lunch and the cab driver on the way back to the airport.

And when you get home you realize there are plenty of people in your own city you’ll only see once. The man with his dog you passed three streets over on your evening walk. The woman waiting next to you at jury duty. You’re the nicest, friendliest person they’ve ever met, right? So it’s no big deal to make a little light small talk about what a beautiful dog he has or to say you’ve heard good things about that book.

And it gets easier and easier the more you do it and before you know it, it’s not such a big deal to approach people you should have known all along or wish you knew better.

Because you don’t have to start off with a deep conversation that makes up for all those years of shyness and distance. You can start with a few small moments over time that make the other person want to talk to you, so that they share the work of building the bond.

Because, now that you don’t need to hide in the crowd, you can join the table where just one or two other people are sitting alone. Their gratitude allows you to have a much more rewarding conversation than if you joined a discussion already in full swing, with no room for you, and more and more people will be drawn to the group you started. (Seriously, this is the single greatest trick I’ve learned about dealing with those situations where you don’t know anybody in the room.)

Most shy people – and I say this as a formerly-painfully-and-still-occasionally-slightly shy person – go about dealing with their shyness in exactly the wrong way. They hide in the familiar, among the people who only know them as a shy person, and it reinforces their fear.

The worst thing that can happen to a shy person is to have a confident companion to hide behind. The real way to get over shyness is to go find a stranger to talk to, because really, a stranger is a shy person’s best friend.

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