Okay or No Way: Small Talk With Strangers

Okay or No Way: Small Talk With Strangers

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Jennifer Hunter
Sep 4, 2015
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

I was in a NYC store recently, waiting in line to try on some pants, when the woman standing next to me started chatting. Nothing fancy, she just complimented my choice and asked who made the pants. Then she kinda sidled up, reached out and felt the material of the very pants I was holding. Like any New York City dweller would, I recoiled. A line had definitely been crossed. But, once I was finally alone in the dressing room, I started thinking about stranger danger and why being approached by someone who I don't know feels so weird. Let's talk about it.

I'm not alone. A funny Onion article entitled Report: It's Not Okay To Just Start Talking To People You Don’t Know recently caught my eye.

Here's a taste:

The report, which analyzed numerous conversations that took place over a nine-month period from September of last year through May, states that approaching a complete and total stranger and saying “Beautiful day,” “That’s nice, where did you get that?” or “Hello” is, under no circumstance, acceptable.

Sure, it's a joke but it's so true! What sounds innocent and friendly in my mind, throws me for a loop when it happens in real life. City Lab reports that a recent study even says that a third of Americans have never interacted with their neighbors, and they live right next door.

Then there's this article in the Science of US which is so perfectly summarized by the title: I Talked to Strangers for a Week, and It Did Not Go Well. In an attempt to be friendlier, the author tried to strike up little conversations with various strangers and they nearly all reacted exactly like I did in that dressing room: with a grim, forced friendliness until they could escape. I get it. I think city dwellers feel so bombarded by stimuli that an unwanted conversation sometimes just feels like too much to take.

I know some of you may be appalled by this news. Perhaps you can't imagine a world where it's considered an imposition to comment about the weather to the person next to you on the bus. But it's a reality for many people, I assure you.

I recently told you about how small, person-to-person interactions vary so much in different places I've lived. I don't know if I would have blinked an eye if that very same type of interaction had taken place in a smaller, friendlier location. But in my city life, it seems, there's just no room for small talk. In fact, the last time I said anything to a stranger that wasn't "excuse me" was in a recent yoga class and it was only after she had literally held my hips while I did a handstand. Talk about forced intimacy (turns out she was great).

The exception, of course, is an interaction with anyone working retail. If someone is helping you in a store, small talk feels polite. In fact, I just asked Apartment Therapy staffer Ashley how she reacts to the random stranger trying to chat her up, and she reported recently spending several minutes helping a woman locate the kosher beef in her local grocery store (she chalks it up to previously working in retail).

So what about you? Are you always chatting in line or are you the silent type? What's your take?

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