Published Essays, Published Stories, Travel Column


“How do you talk to strangers?”

What does it take to smile at that wonderful stranger in the hostel; or to start a conversation to that old lady beside you on the bus?

It is odd to be asked a question on how to speak to strangers when, for the first half of your life, you’re told by responsible adults to not to talk to strangers.

Of course, we do not discount the dangers of strangers. But rather, ‘don’t talk to strangers’ is rather impossible to do, no? We encounter strangers all the time–in the workplace, in the lift rides, in your travels—strangers are everywhere…

Rather than the usual ‘don’t talk to strangers’ edict, it would be better–but more complex–to teach kids on how to be smart about strangers. Rather than use preemptive fear to keep us safe, we could look into teaching the youth to be more assertive, intuitive and autonomous independent individuals.

“What if I have nothing to say? What if I have nothing interesting to say?”

Someone prodded on. I nod because I understood, like it is something I can imagine myself saying in my younger years. Experience has a way of teaching you to think less, care less… Sounds counterintuitive, but not caring actually felt liberating.

What makes us so anxious to talk to a stranger? Maybe it is not in our Filipino veins to make small talk. Or maybe it is in our human DNA to fear the unknown; a fundamental and rational part for survival.

Will this person accept me as part of her group? Or will I be treated as an outsider? I should just make myself invisible, and try not to stick out–that’s a good evolutionary strategy our ancestors have done to survive in the past…

But as I find myself more frequently out on the road, I found the skill of talking to random people becoming more a necessity. When in a foreign country, when in dire need of a friend, when I seek for someone I can share something with–a meal, a story, or even laughter–anything.

One evening, I found myself in a latin bar enjoying an amazing spectacle of locals and transients dancing to a beautiful song sung in a foreign tongue. I look to my left and see no one. I glanced to my right and my eyes gravitated to a warm body with a easy smile.

More importantly, he was gung-ho humming to the tune of the song I ached to know, and I immediately liked him. He looked like an old familiar friend. His spirit is light; and his presence immediately made me feel a big weight off my back unload.

The hardest part of overcoming shyness is the first few seconds of hesitation. I knew that if I wait beyond two breaths to say something, I wouldn’t say anything at all.

And then I also knew that ten minutes later I would regret not having said anything. And as I am in the process of agonizing, it would be too late to say something now, too awkward and too rehearsed.

I know I would spend the rest of the night torturing myself as I replay my imagined perfectly suave conversation in my head, over and over again.

I wished I said something!!!!!!”

It took me years of studying passers-by and friends, observing them across different environments and how they interact and how to talk to strangers. The more I mingle, consume alcohol, and put myself in strange places, the more I felt more comfortable in letting my guard down.

With experience comes wisdom and you realize that conversation isn’t really about the words spoken. Conversation is really more about the energies exchanged between two people.

I’ve learned to stop thinking and just go with the flow. It is really about switching off the worry switch. I’ve stopped agonizing on what to say, or what to say next. Most times, the other person is just as stressed out as you. Because oftentimes people tend listen to respond, and not to understand. And maybe that’s the problem.

Maybe it’s that I’ve grown to be smarter, or stupider, with age. I stopped thinking too much and just lead with intuition–I found that that’s when the magic happens.

OK. Two breaths. Inhale, exhale. Inhale–I turned to the man at the bar. Exhale.


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