“Don’t talk to strangers.” It’s one of the staple parenting maxims that has been around since the dawn of time. The four-word command is fairly easy for toddlers to remember and makes enough sense for growingly independent kids to obey. I wasn’t one of those kids.
I don’t remember ever being told by my parents to steer clear of strangers. My father, a networking guru who has created business partners out of people on his snorkeling tours and in hotel lobbies, would never say such a thing. He thanks communicating with strangers for the life path he has paved for himself.
I can always depend on my mother to strike up a conversation with any smiling barista or friendly train conductor she comes in contact with. It is this propensity to learn about and brighten the faces of others that lead her to embark on a new career as a social worker, well into her fifties.
You don’t have to know me for more than five minutes to appreciate that I have picked up the same quality that my parents share. I consider a transaction at a store incomplete if all I say is “thank you” at the cash register. By the time my pizza is stacked with all of the necessary accouterments at a college make-your-own pizza joint, I usually have an established inside joke with the person behind the counter.
Now that I’m out of my teens and starting a career, I’m incredibly thankful that I never cultivated the fear of strangers that so many have. I have learned innumerable lessons from the people I’ve decided to befriend. I don’t call them strangers, I call them potential friends.
It’s hard to dispute that you aren’t supposed to get into a stranger’s car. When I was younger, the rhetoric in school assemblies and infomercials was the idea that you also don’t meet up with someone you met on the internet. So… how do you explain Uber? One of the most convenient powerhouse businesses in the 21st century is based on the notion that you summon strangers from the internet and get in their cars.
In fact, Uber drivers are the perfect potential friends. On the journey to O’Hare airport, one of my Uber drivers told me about his vast traveling experiences and successfully convinced me to accept a job offer in London, leaving my comfort zone. I wouldn’t have a personal website if another Uber driver didn’t suggest the idea to me. One of my drivers was a freelance yoga instructor, and I decided to write an article about her unique business lifestyle.
On the way to Philadelphia, I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic with an Uber driver who was an ex-bartender and a soon-to-be computer programmer. Our conversation flowed from politics, to music festivals, to the implications of the Kardashians and the setbacks of the internet. He provided me insights that I could never have gotten from reading articles or books. I left that Mazda feeling inspired.
Last week, I was stuck on a plane for four more hours than I was planning to. Over a hundred strangers were stuck on the tarmac together in Chicago. Soon after we heard the update overhead, all of the unconnected souls on the flight started flickering together, complaining about where they had to be and lamenting their grievances about missing connecting flights.
What started off as a dish session became something akin to a cocktail party. We all laughed when a woman called out “WHAT ABOUT VODKA?!” when the flight attendants offered us free cranberry juice. The man next to me was from Flint, Michigan, and he told me about his experiences with the water tragedy. When I lost my wallet, eight people around me stood out of their seats to help me find it before realizing it was exactly where I left it in my backpack. If it weren’t for strangers communicating and sharing and laughing, the claustrophobic experience of being stuck on a stationary plane for hours would’ve been unbearable.
If it weren’t for the potential friends I’ve engaged with, I would have missed out on some of my most enlightening experiences and conversations. Obviously, use your discretion and instinct when you decide to talk to strangers. But, who knows — maybe you’ll embark on a new life path based on who you happen to be squished next to on the subway.