Tara Schuster
April 01, 2013 7:00 am

Hello, fellow traveler.

Last time we met, we went over the findings of my first foray into life advice testing. I tested my therapist’s advice to make all of my decisions within sixty seconds. Over lattés (you ordered whole milk – we laughed about it), I happily reported that the experiment left me free of FOMO. I was even experiencing JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out). With that success behind me, it was time to try on some new words of wisdom.

This Week’s Advice: Meet a Stranger Every Day

The Adviser: My Friend Hilly

My good friend Hilly is one of those gals who are infuriatingly good at life. Always with perfectly tousled hair, always with a smile, always direct, she exudes strength and generosity. Strength AND generosity! Even more upsetting, it’s all genuine. She is just the kind of person you want to take advice from.

Hilly challenged me to meet a stranger every day. Every. Day. Not just, “be more open to people” or “don’t bury your face in your iPhone,” but actually go out and meet a perfect stranger each day. Ugh.

Where I could easily picture Hilly being dropped into a group of strangers and somehow emerging as the new BFF to Salman Rushdie on a charter jet to Morocco, I’m the type of person who, when seated next to someone chatty on an airplane, puts on noise cancelling headphones, an eye-mask, and then hides under the blanket I have brought for the express purpose of separating me from other passengers. I was nicknamed “clam hands” in high school because I walked around with sweaty, little anxiety fists at my side. Old clam hands had no interest in sky diving into rejection without a parachute. I hated and feared the advice so much that I knew I had to try it.

Test One: Talk To People Who Are Obligated To Be Nice

I started with the most obvious strangers in my life: the people who are paid to deal with me. These are the low-hanging fruit of strangers – people you come into close contact with on a daily basis but with whom you may have no relationship. We are talking about the cute baristas, the hostesses with the beautiful necklaces, the cab drivers who yell that you look like “a Chinese”. The taxicab is an especially bizarre case of anonymity where you can trust someone else with your life without even knowing his or her name. I trust this person so much that I don’t even wear a seat belt. A SEAT BELT.

I hailed cab number 5B29 and made it my goal to start a real conversation (not just exchange pleasantries) with the driver. To my surprise, Cal, the driver, was not only excited to have someone to chat with but also was eager to let me into the secrets of the taxicab world. He told me that a driver’s shift is always 5 to 5 (am or pm) so that all drivers have a shot at a rush hour and that when hailing a taxi one should never talk to the driver if he rolls down his window – just get in. He further confirmed my suspicion that “off duty” signs don’t really mean anything. “Completely ludicrous” he said and then explained that they would soon be taken off cabs entirely. Cal was sweet and somewhat protective warned me to “Be careful, some drivers are absolutely crazy.” Not Cal though. He was the best.

After that small victory, I ventured to Bushwick for a “Drink and Draw” event – what could be a better way to throw myself off the deep end than mingling with hipsters drinking PBRs and drawing a nude model? But it was much harder than I expected to leave the comfort of my friends.

Unable to hack it with the people paying to be in the class I sought out someone who sort of had to talk to me. I spotted Dave, who was running the information desk, and launched into a series of questions about his life. Where did he go to school? Did he have a big, glorious impossible dream he was aiming for? And why not? “Dream big, Dave,” I heard myself say. I felt a little creepy. Who was I to intrude in this man’s life? But Dave seemed keen to talk. He told me about a series of solar panel activated robot flowers he was making. The flowers would sit in Washington Square Park and as the sculptures sucked up solar power they would slowly open to reveal musical bars (the kind in a xylophone) that would sound once the sculpture had collected enough solar power. How effing cool. As we chatted he pulled out his dinner of spaghetti in Tupperware. When he offered me a bite, I knew my mission was accomplished.

Test 2: Introduce Myself To People With No Social Obligation To Be Kind

Talking to people who were paid to tolerate me felt a little like cheating. I needed to kick it up a notch by cold introducing myself to people with whom I had no connection. At all. This is your random person on the street, or your total stranger at a party, even the person loitering inside of CVS. At my favorite coffee shop in the West Village, I noticed a rather tall man sitting alone with a laptop on his knees. Without really thinking about it, I asked him if he wanted to share my table. He took me up on the offer and this naturally started a conversation. He was visiting from LA, my native city, so we immediately had a lot to talk about: high schools, The Coffee Bean, the sun in general. Only after I left did I realize I had just met and spoken to a real life stranger. All it took was the bare minimum of decency: offering my table to someone who needed a little space.

I took this lesson into the rest of my experiment. Maybe all you needed to strike up a conversation with a total stranger was to offer them something: a compliment, a smile, meth (JK, JK). This held true at my friend Jess’s Saint Patrick’s Day party. Instead of waiting for the hostess to make introductions, I went up to people I didn’t recognize and told them what I liked about them. “I love your dress,” “Sweet dance moves,” “You look nice,” all true statements that I thought in my head but would not ordinarily say aloud. And you know what? That small offering blasted through the usual awkwardness of first encounters. Suddenly I was making lunch plans, agreeing to go to a comedy show, laughing with strangers and genuinely enjoying their company.

Meeting new people was going far too well. People were nice and open to talking with me — and even more alarmingly it turned out I was nice. Far from “do-not-disturb,” I was seeking out new encounters. What was I turning into?

Test 3: Talk to people I actively avoid meeting, namely: the elderly

Taking Hilly’s advice was going far too well – I had to find a way to push the limits of my comfort zone.

The only thing that sounded worse than meeting strangers was actively seeking to befriend those I would never, ever want to meet. I had to meet “the elderly.”

I have always had an irrational fear of old people, which I attribute to an early experience visiting a really unkind and dirty nursing home. I’m not sure why my babysitter took me but I can still remember the split-pea soup stink of the place. Since I didn’t know my grandparents well, that nursing home has always been my impression of getting old.

I volunteered for a night of playing bingo with strangers, and I have to tell you that walking in I felt queasy. I had butterflies. I thought maybe I really shouldn’t do this. After all, wasn’t it sort of disingenuous to do volunteer work for an ulterior motive? As I contemplated leaving a lively woman in a smart suit called out to me. “Are you Tara? We’re waiting for you!” It was too late to go back.

I was sent room to room to canvas for bingo players, but it turned out most of the residents were tired and uninterested. That’s when I came upon Jo’s room. Jo was recovering from a leg injury and was learning how to walk again. She didn’t think she could get into bingo, but would I like to stay and chat? I would.

Jo told me stories of old New York, of the mafia that used to take care of her family on Elizabeth Street, of how a disturbed man had his Rottweiler attack her when she was ten but how a neighbor made a salve that healed her wounds almost completely. As I listened to her stories I no longer saw the nursing home or her age, I saw a funny broad who knew a lot about life and had some good stories to tell. My expectation that she would scare me evaporated, instead I was laughing at her jokes and wanted to know more. She invited me to dinner at her apartment when she got better. She said I could have wine but she would drink Coca-Cola. I sincerely hope she gets well enough to make that dinner. I have a date to see her next Tuesday evening so I’ll let you know how she’s doing.

The Lesson: Talk To Strangers More Often (But Not Everyday)

In forcing myself to meet strangers I learned something shocking: I am a nice person who is interested in connecting with new people. Somewhere along the line I had told myself that I was “do-not-disturb” and that meeting strangers was boring and a waste of time. But once I forced myself out of my comfort zone I found the exact opposite to be true. I was having fun hearing new stories and the more comfortable I felt with strangers the more confident I felt in myself. Even if these relationships were not long lasting it was worth meeting strangers if only to know that if you are kind you will most likely be met with kindness*.

I recommend being open to meeting a stranger every day but not making it your daily mission. Instead challenge yourself to meet one new person at your next party, or maybe the next time you go out for coffee. Pick something small and see how it feels. I guarantee that you will begin to see that fear of rejection is just that- fear. While children shouldn’t talk to strangers I’m (sort of) an adult and I want to be the kind of adult who is open to meeting new people.

Have life advice for me to try on? Tell me in the comments or tweet me @taraschustar. I want to try it!

*This does not apply to 7th or 8th grades I’m sorry to say.

Featured image via Shutterstock

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