memoir: talking to strangers
I have always been painfully shy. Well, actually, that is not the entire truth. When I was a very little thing I used to love talking to strangers. I had been taught by my parents to believe that I was special and interesting, and as a result I thought that everyone would be delighted by anything that I had to say. And as the majority of people seem quite fond of children, they almost always were.
But then life happened, as it does, and I got a little older. And with the years came buck teeth, a very awkward growth spurt, and glasses. And the teasing. A LOT of teasing.
Despite my parents’ best efforts, my self-esteem plummeted. I no longer thought that anyone would want to hear what I had to say, and I no longer thought that I was worth taking up anyone’s time.
This got worse as when I entered high-school, and ended up becoming what I now realise was full-blown social phobia. I had my close group of friends, but it made me physically sick to think of talking to anyone else. I couldn’t brave the two metres to the bubblers without friends by my side (who, looking back, were very understanding about this little quirk of mine), and I spent most of the day dreading the walk home alone – particularly as a group of boys from school would sit at the bridge near my street and wait for me, just so that they could mock my complete inability to even look at them without getting flustered and upset.
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with an eating disorder in college and placed into a clinic that I was completely thrown out of my comfort zone. My parents had decided that letting me get away with never going anywhere or doing anything alone had not been good for me. As a result, the first day I started the clinic was also the first day I caught a bus alone. To say that I dealt with it well and learned many a wonderful and valuable lesson from leaving my comfort zone would be a neat little ending, but it would also be a lie. Instead, I began to get such severe panic attacks every time I was on the bus that I had to be put on anti-anxiety medication for the last two months of the eating disorders program, just so that I could actually get there every day.
But then something happened at the program itself. You see, I was not the only one in it. There were other girls in the program, and try as I might, I was forced to talk to them. It wasn’t just idle chit-chat about the weather either. Part of our therapy was to talk about our feelings. A LOT. In fact, aside from a half-hour here and there where we were allowed to make collages (and then talk about how our collages made us feel), that is basically all we did.
You can’t really call someone a stranger for long after they tell you all about their most vulnerable moments. So I sort of bonded with this group of strange girls and by the time I left the program, I wasn’t only eating again, but I also wasn’t mind-numbingly terrified of other people.
So what made this change come about? I couldn’t, and still can’t, help but think that it was a case of “practice makes perfect”. After all, just as you’ll never learn to swim if you don’t get in the water, you’re never going to be good at talking to other people if you never actually do it. So I thought of my newfound ability to talk to people as a skill I had started to learn, and set myself a year-long challenge the day I started university:
I was going to talk to one new person a day, starting from the very first day I entered the campus.
As my first day involved only one lecture on a Monday afternoon, very few people actually attended, so to my disappointment no one sat next to me. But rather than give up, I leaned over and poked the girl in front of me very firmly on the shoulder. She turned around, looking as shocked as one would expect when they find their daydreaming rather painfully interrupted. ‘Hello!’ I practically shouted in her face, and without waiting for a response I proceeded to introduce myself and then ramble on about how it was my first day and I didn’t know anybody, so let’s be friends.
Surprisingly, she responded positively and though I never saw her again (I’m certain now that she made sure to always sit as far away as possible from me after that), we had a marvellous pre-class chat. Because of this my confidence was boosted enough to attempt the same feat the next day, and the one after that, until it became almost second nature. Of course, I got a few rude responses, like the small kid on the bus who told me to ‘please go away’, and the boy in class who, upon my asking how his day had been, snapped ‘I have a girlfriend’ and promptly changed seats. But for every negative response I got for attempting to strike up a conversation with a stranger, there were ten positive ones.
A girl I approached in the first week of university is still a very close friend of mine. A quick hello to a boy waiting at the bus stop resulting in his sobbing onto my shoulder about a friend he had recently lost. I heard so many life stories from the people who I only got a short time to know, and it made me realise just how amazing people are, and how much we have to learn from others if we only listen. By stepping out of my comfort zone and really spending time in this beautiful world of ours, I not only learned how to look after and care for myself, but also how to really care and have empathy for all of those around me as well.
All in all, it was the best year of my life.
Of course, don’t get me wrong, my complete withdrawal from the world for a number of years had made me totally oblivious to any sort of social convention and the acceptable ways to act. For example, my bedroom had just been redecorated to look a bit more like a grown-up’s, complete with a fancy new bed – a fact that I was very proud of. So in the course of one week, I managed to ask two guys – who I did not know very well at all – to come back to my house to look at my bedroom. One of the boys took me up on this, and left very disappointed indeed. The other looked absolutely horrified and stammered ‘could we…go to the m-mall instead?’ (This boy is now my husband, and I’m still a little offended that he rejected my accidental sexual advance).
But aside from a few faux-pas, I still maintain that my complete naiveté about relating to other humans was actually one of the best things that ever happened to me. Because I wasn’t jaded at all. I believed that everyone was good and kind and wanted the best for everyone else (at least, until I started working in hospitality, but that’s a whole different kind of memoir).
Over the years I have lost this interest in my fellow humans, as so many of us have. We are so blindsided by our own lives that we forget to wonder about other people and their experiences. I stand in public service elevators with five other people, and no one says a word to each other. Not a ‘how was your day?’ or even a simple ‘hello’. Instead, they look at their phones or stare blankly at the opposite wall in an attempt to ward off conversation.
It was only the other day that I started to really think about my first year of university and how friendly and open people can be if you simply nudge them just a little bit. So I made an effort, for one day, to practice the skill of conversation with strangers once more, ending up in a deep discussion with the taxi driver about music, happiness and how to make the most of these short lives of ours. And we both parted smiling and thanking each other for the great talk. I felt happier than I had in a long time.
Life is short, and making these beautiful little connections with our fellow human beings is so important. It reminds us that we’re not alone; that there is a whole world out there full of kind, interesting people. It teaches us to care about others, to become compassionate. And if feeling empathy and care for those around us doesn’t lead to a happy and fulfilled life, I don’t know what does.
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