by Niall Doherty

A few noons ago, I went walking to find a park near my house in Cork. On the way back, I found myself heading towards a guy of similar age on a narrow footpath. As we closed the gap, I smiled a genuine smile and gave him a soft nod. He noticed, and after we had passed each other by, turned and called after me, “Do you have something to say?”

There was hostility in his voice. The question he had really asked was, “What the fuck are you looking at?”

Earlier today, as I strolled back home from my mid-morning walkabout, I noticed a girl about my age getting out of a car she had just squeezed into a tight parking space. I flashed a thumbs up and a smile as I walked on by and said, “Nice parking. Good job!”

She glanced at me like I was potential rapist, then turned and took off in the other direction without a word.

Of course, I’ve also received some positive reactions from strangers I’ve acknowledged in recent weeks, but incidents like the above appear to be the norm. People are generally scared of strangers.

And I don’t think this problem is exclusively Irish. I think you’ll find similar reactions wherever you find a big city. I was spoiled for the past three years living in a city (New Orleans) that seems to be an exception.

What are we so afraid of?

Hostile Guy somehow felt threatened by my nod-smile. Perhaps he thought I was making fun of him. Parking Girl was also scared, even though it was broad daylight and I was walking away from her as I spoke. Perhaps I look more like rapist than I realize :-/

I just got done watching this excellent TED Talk by William Ury. In it he defines terrorism and its opposite:

What is terrorism? Terrorism is basically taking an innocent stranger and treating them as an enemy who you kill in order to create fear. What’s the opposite of terrorism? It’s taking an innocent stranger and treating them as a friend, whom you welcome into your home, in order to sew and create understanding, or respect, or love.

Ury goes on to say that if we want to conquer terrorism, we must live and breathe its opposite. We must open up to strangers, freely offering our smiles and acknowledgments and kind words.

I find that not everyone is ready to receive however, as Hostile Guy and Parking Girl demonstrated. I suspect they’re watching too much TV and reading too many newspapers and as such consider the world a big bad place full of dangerous strangers.

Real dangers

Granted, sometimes the concerns are legitimate. There are rapists and murders and all kinds of unsavory characters out there. Not every stranger is flashing a no-strings-attached smile. I should know, I’ve been burned myself.

A few weeks after moving to New Orleans in 2007, I awoke from a drunken blackout in a strange bedroom with a guy’s hand down my heterosexual pants. I had met him the night before while walking home from a friend’s house. He seemed friendly and invited me to shoot some pool, so I went along. Turns out he wasn’t entirely trustworthy, and I know I’m lucky he wasn’t a bigger guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

But despite that violation, and despite the rejections from Hostile Guy and Parking Lady, I persist in talking to strangers. I feel the reward far outweighs the risk.

A week before that strange man put his hand down my pants, I met another man waiting for the streetcar on the way to a Hornets game. I talked to him, he talked back, and we ended up becoming great friends, hanging out regularly and sharing countless good times.

Just last Saturday I was walking home late along the river when I spotted a guy locking up an odd looking bicycle just ahead of me. I was curious, so I asked him about it. An hour later, having chatted away to each other and sharing numerous stories and ideas in the pub across the road, we exchanged contact information and he let me test ride the bike. Yesterday I e-mailed him some requested critique about his website, and he sent me more details about upcoming PechaKucha events in the city. I know I have a little more faith in humanity after that encounter, and I suspect he does, too.

Beyond making friends

I don’t talk to each stranger with the hope that they might become my next BFF or be willing to share some information I find valuable. I talk to strangers because I’m a human being. As such, I like to acknowledge other human beings.

I see neighbors passing each other by in courtyards without so much as a word, as if the other person is invisible, and it baffles me. Why do we ignore each other? What are we scared of?

I suspect the problem is that most people are too self-conscious, so caught up in their own rambling minds that they can’t just be. They’re worried what strangers will think of them. They’re worried about saying hello and not hearing hello back.

I say screw that. Say hello anyway.

I aim for at least one no-reply per day. That’s when I say hello or otherwise try to engage with a stranger and get nothing positive in return. I’ve turned it into a game so I don’t end up scared and closed off like the zombie-eyed majority.

Recognizing zombies

I define zombies as those people who are living scared, afraid to talk to strangers, overly preoccupied with what other people think of them and perceiving anything unusual as a threat.

I’ve found an easy way to tell if someone on the street is a zombie. Just watch them waiting to cross a busy intersection. Zombies will fidget uncomfortably. They’ll take out a phone or adjust their clothing or look around nervously to see if anyone’s watching them.

Another way is to offer a compliment. Zombies generally feel awkward about compliments, and fearful when they come from strangers. He likes my hat. OMFG he must be a rapist!!

Conscious people generally respond to compliments with a simple and sincere, “Thank you!”

Holding back the big smiles

I’m a recovering zombie. I still get scared sometimes, and worry too much about what other people think of me.

I find it interesting how we can be more open with kids than we can with adults. I noticed this on a flight last month. A toddler came past my seat and looked at me curiously, as toddlers do. I gave him a big toothy smile and he smiled back. No big deal, except I find it difficult to offer the same all-out smile to adults. Part of it is my fear of rejection. Part of it is the other person’s fear of the unknown (Why is that person smiling at me? He must be a rapist!!).

When it comes to strangers, lip smiles are easy, you can pull them off even without sincerity. Toothy smiles, not so much. You have to really let go to deliver those.

Zombie rehabilitation program

I’ll end with a few suggestions to stretch your stranger interaction skills and keep that inner zombie at bay:

  1. Every day, aim to say hello to one random person on the street. The more closed off they are, the better. If they get scared or angry at you for acknowledging their existence, just keep on walking.
  2. Offer genuine compliments. If you like that girl’s hat, tell her you like her hat.
  3. Introduce yourself to people who interest you. A good icebreaker I’ve found is, “Hello, I wanted to come over and meet you.” Say it while smiling.
  4. Be playful. Zombies will recoil in horror at your playfulness, because life is supposed to be dull and miserable and your playful behavior is like a stake through their heart (or however you kill zombies). Non-zombies will be playful right back.
  5. Deliver the biggest genuine smile you can muster whenever you meet someone new.
  6. Stop watching the news.
  7. Avoid hanging out with other zombies. That shit’s contagious.