Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková

Say yes to discomfort

How to talk to strangers

Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková
Talking to people you don’t know? Lots of students find that deeply uncomfortable and so they try to avoid it. But there are also those who actively search for that discomfort. ‘You learn so much from a stranger.’
17 January om 10:46 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 January 2024
om 12:33 uur.
January 17 at 10:46 AM.
Last modified on January 24, 2024
at 12:33 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Zuzana Ludvikova

17 January om 10:46 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 January 2024
om 12:33 uur.
Avatar photo

By Zuzana Ludvikova

January 17 at 10:46 AM.
Last modified on January 24, 2024
at 12:33 PM.

Inês Monteiro will always remember the stranger she met on Valentine’s Day one year ago. She was having a picnic with a friend along the canal and heard him play the guitar. 

‘He was a really skinny guy, but dressed up in a nice suit. Not somebody you’d pass by on the street’, the Portuguese student says. They praised his performance and invited him over for something to drink. 

‘He then shared his crazy life story with us’, she recounts. How he toured with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and struggled with homelessness. That he didn’t own a cellphone and read only books. ‘He could’ve been lying his head off, but so what?’ 

Inês treasures the memory. ‘You learn so much from a stranger like this. If he managed to do all of that, I guess I could also become anything I want!’

One year earlier though, Inês would probably not even have chosen that spot at the canal near him. She’d have found another one where she and her friend could be alone; just as many other students would have done to avoid talking to people they don’t know. 

Human connection

With a smartphone always available to pass the time, talking to strangers becomes unnecessary and even a bit bizarre. However, research shows that people who do regularly have conversations with people they don’t know are happier and less likely to feel lonely.

A conversation with a stranger can help to fulfil that unmet need for closeness

Empathy coach Jan Reinder Rosing, who teaches workshops on life skills at the UG Honours College,  knows all about the benefits of interactions with strangers. In his workshops, he meets a lot of people who talk about being in superficial friendships and don’t have anyone to talk to about their problems. 

But there are ways to turn this around, he says. ‘When we’re open and brave enough, a conversation with a stranger can help to fulfil that unmet need for closeness, intimacy, and human connection.’

When travelling, he himself always picks up hitchhikers. Once he even let one sleep over at his house. He does it simply because he loves to experience other people’s lives through hearing their stories. ‘By judging less and listening more to what drives other people, we engage in a more open conversation.’

Inner critic

Inês has learned that too, but in her second year she struggled to make new connections. ‘I was scared of going everywhere alone and I sucked at small talk. I wasn’t getting anywhere.’ 

On top of that, her inner critic kept her from approaching ‘cool people’ who could be friend material. ‘There was always this hateful voice telling me that I wouldn’t match their vibe or that I should shut up because I had nothing interesting to say.’  

So when her close friend – ‘the most extroverted girl on the planet’ – invited her to drinks and parties at her association, Inês didn’t hesitate. But there was a catch. ‘She and I would come together and then she’d just dip and leave me alone with strangers.’ 

At first, Inês panicked and let her inner critic trample her confidence. But then, she gathered a bit of courage and forced herself to talk to just one person next to her. Then another one – ‘and it worked!’ 

Prepared questions

Eventually, Inês learned how to ask interesting questions or become approachable by appearing open. ‘For example, I’d always have a list of questions prepared in my head, which helped break the ice.’ 

Or she used positive body language – sitting straight or opening up her chest instead of crossing arms and slouching. ‘The point was to actually enjoy my time when going out and not sit there silently by myself while dreading it. I eventually realised I also just had to constantly put myself into uncomfortable situations to learn how to function in them.’ 

I had to put myself into uncomfortable situations to learn how to function in them

That is something Michaela Carrière from the Diversity and Inclusion team at the UG experienced too. She read The Power of Strangers by journalist Joe Keohane, an investigation on the topic of stranger interaction. It made a deep impression. ‘I know that our perceptions of other people are more negative than they should be, which is exactly what keeps us from making the first step.’ 

Just like Inês, and as an introvert, she had to re-learn the skill herself – for example by approaching a new colleague at lunch instead of eating alone. Now, for Carrière, every stranger is just a friend she hasn’t met yet. ‘That was a big step for me, but it’s been good.’ This is how easy it is to increase our own sense of inclusion, she says, or to help others feel more included.

And so she decided to organise a university workshop in October last year to help others to do the same. ‘When I asked participants about their last casual stranger interaction, I got an unexpected answer – for one of them, it was one and a half years ago. That’s how much we stay in our bubbles.’ 

Pushing boundaries

For economics student Sebastian Virsik, consciously making contact with strangers has been part of his life philosophy for five years now – ever since he found the Yes Theory YouTube channel. ‘It’s really four guys constantly pushing the boundaries of their comfort zones to an extreme, for example by running a marathon without training or asking strangers to go skydiving and get matching tattoos’, he explains. ‘It’s there I first learned about the “seek discomfort” strategy.’

Seeking discomfort doesn’t mean he unthinkingly chases things that might get him killed, though. To him, it means that when discomfort appears, he doesn’t try to escape it. By seeking discomfort and not perceiving it as a problem, the threshold of anxiety and stress coming from an uncomfortable situation changes. ‘Like when you’re standing in a queue at a supermarket and can’t find your discount card while other people are waiting.’

I was told to avoid strangers, but too much fear can be counterproductive

Although it might feel uncomfortable to many, Sebastian stopped thinking about it in such a way. ‘It doesn’t affect me anymore.’ 

By saying yes to discomfort, he disarms its power, he says. And now, inconveniences that were a big deal in the past are normal. Like with meeting strangers – a recurring theme in Yes Theory videos. ‘As a little kid, I was always told to avoid strangers. But too much fear can be counterproductive.’ 

He doesn’t mind being the first one to smile anymore, to say hi or even start a small chat. ‘If I talk to a stranger, either something good is going to come out of it or we never meet again. Easy.’ 

Shared passion

Sebastian still recalls the day when he overheard a couple on the street talk about his backpack, which has the text ‘Seek Discomfort’ on it in big bold letters. ‘I turned around and said hi. Eventually, we had a nice conversation where I introduced them to my philosophy.’ 

After talking some more, it also turned out that all three share a passion for cycling, so after exchanging numbers, they promised to keep in touch for future trips. ‘Nothing has come of it yet, but if it does, I’ll be happy to show them around my home of Slovakia.’

‘By stretching our comfort zones, testing our assumptions about other people and being open to different views’, Carrière says, ‘we can broaden our own understanding of the world. It’s like building a habit. You take tiny steps and see where it takes you.’ 

‘Empathy helps us experience the struggles or happy moments of somebody else, and shows that we truly care about one another’, adds empathy coach Rosing. And that, he stresses, is what forges human connection.

Conversing for beginners 

How do you make conversation with people you don’t know? Jasja Nottelman from All Ears Groningen has a few tips.  

  1. Be open as much as you can and accept that all of us are different.
  2. Don’t be afraid – sometimes, fear is an unhelpful adviser that makes us judge the other person too soon.
  3. Listen with a non-judgmental, laid-back attitude that makes the other person feel comfortable to talk with you.
  4. Dare to ask unconventional questions that will push the conversation beyond small talk.
  5. Also, give interesting answers. Ask a stranger about their day and when it’s your turn, give a unique, honest answer other than ‘fine’ – such as ‘6 out of 10’.
  6. Learn how to be aware of your own feelings, assumptions, and attitudes. For example, mindfulness exercises will help you become at ease with yourself and more open when meeting other people.
  7. Give a stranger the benefit of doubt and expect the best case scenario. There’s a good chance that afterwards, both of you will be pleased with the conversation!
  8. Know that the stranger on the other side is also a human being with fears, anxieties, and uncertainties – a human being just like you.

All Ears is a free initiative that offers students a safe space to talk about their struggles in a confidential setting every Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Harmonie complex and Zernike campus.