In this online world we’re all too busy looking at screens, texting, and hurrying from one task to the next to look up at the strangers around us — or strike up a conversation. Doing so could seem like a waste of their time – and our own.
But is it?
As an entrepreneur and author who — with no formal schooling or diploma — has relied on self-teaching and trial-and-error to succeed, I have seen that talking to strangers is, in fact, one of the most important ingredients for success, both professional and personal.
One of my biggest breaks came from talking to a custodian at the night school I was attending to earn my CPA qualification. I frequently encountered and chatted with him in the hallways. He was East Indian, like me. One day, he asked, “Can you do my tax return?” With a reputation for being perpetually disgruntled, he insisted on being called Mr. J.
Instead of dismissing or ignoring him, I impulsively agreed. Thus began an annual tradition: Mr. J would invite me to his modest home, where I’d complete his and his wife’s tax returns. During these sessions, he would sit across the dining table, arms folded, glaring at me throughout.
His wife would compensate for his curmudgeonliness by cooking the tastiest Indian food I’d ever had, flooding me with pleasant memories from my childhood. She spared nothing, offering an abundant, delectable feast. Judging by their home’s humble decor, it was obvious that they lived hand-to-mouth, so I did not charge them for doing their tax returns.
One year, I needed money to fund my business. When Mr. J asked the perennial question “ How are you?”, I flippantly retorted,” Fine, but do you have a hundred thousand dollars under your bed you could loan me?”
His answer? “Come back tomorrow.”
The next day, there on the dining room table ,was an envelope with my name on it. Inside, a bank draft for a significant sum. No question was asked as to when the sum would be repaid, what interest it would earn, not even a request for a promissory note.
Speaking with strangers also helps me discover who in the community around me needs help, inspiring me to give back.
Recently I read a study that concluded that talking to strangers can actually strengthen our mental health and, by connecting, enrich our lives. Reflecting back on the experiences I’ve just described, I couldn’t agree more. That’s why, as the fall and its flurry of activity kicks off, I encourage you to look up from your screens, stop counting steps and instead, count how many strangers you can speak to. Doing so has the following benefits:
Creates connections that can lead to life-changing turns of events. My conversations with Mr. J. are just one small example. Think for a moment about how many passing conversations you’ve had have ultimately opened new doors.
Restores trust and unity to communities
Chatting with strangers and getting to know them helps break down the barriers of mistrust and suspicion that keep far too many people from connecting and supporting one another.
Helps shift our perspective. Even if you are set in your ways, sometimes a brief interaction can permanently alter how we view things and the actions we choose. The ripple effect on our lives and futures can be quite powerful.
Can have a big impact – even when small
From emotional well-being, new friendships and new opportunities, engaging with strangers can provide surprising advantages. Never underestimate this.
Take it from me: sometimes wisdom, friendships, and even financial miracles come wrapped in the guise of a casual conversation. So go ahead, talk to a stranger today—you never know how it might change your life.
Emil Rem is a creative nonfiction writer, an eccentric accountant and an advocate for overcoming the odds. An Ismaili Muslim originally from Tanzania, he has faced—and overcome—daunting circumstances all his life, from being raised in foster care in England to emigrating to Canada as a young adult. He is the author of Heart of New York and Chasing Aphrodite and has more books in the works. His mission in sharing his stories is to instill hope and inspire people to choose action, resilience, hope and determination for overcoming even the tallest of odds, undaunted.