What I Gain from Talking to People I Don’t Know

Its time we change that story we so often tell, that all strangers mean danger.

Coming from a country where no one really greets you on the street, talking to strangers didn’t come naturally to me. I remember the first time I visited Australia. I was on a beach named Manly in Sydney. I walked into a swimwear store to buy something for my first day here. The girl at the counter, a fresh- faced teenager with a golden tan and commensurate self-assurance, smiled broadly and said, “How you going?”

Now, I wasn’t used to that term, so it befuddled me. Add to that the surprise at being acknowledged by a stranger and the cold-press of jet lag, I offered a feeble smile, followed by an awkward rumble through my bag for nothing specific.

Today, years on and comfortably nestled in my (early) 30s, road-side pleasantries don’t bother me much. Au contraire, they add a beautiful surprise to the narrative of the day that I have subconsciously predicted for myself.

And I cannot recommend enough, keeping yourself open enough to speak to a stranger, or be spoken to by one. You will most likely be enhanced by the experience of a foreign body navigating through their own version of a complex world, completely removed from your own world of healthy lunch pursuits, jazz music or social etiquette in foreign countries. Or perhaps, shockingly, very much like it.

To substantiate my counsel, I’ll offer you an anecdote from my visit to a very hip Jamaican restaurant in Sydney. The place was just all kinds of wonderful, and the mix of jerk chicken, the impossibly mod outfits of the wait staff and the wine at happy hour had already engulfed me in a golden haze of invincibility. Although I couldn’t bear to be away from my evening, the imperatives of human functioning got in the way, and I had to take a break to pee. In the loo, I walked into the cubical at least one or two stalls away from the entrance. I always think the one closest to the entrance will be the most used, and by default, the most germinated, but let’s save that for another post.

Without getting into too many gory details, I took my place by suitably hovering in-order not to touch anything or let myself be touched by anything. The stall next to me was occupied and in a couple of minutes, I noticed a ball of fresh toilet paper being passed on to me from under the stall partition. “They’re out of toilet paper in that one,” I could hear a stranger say. Still teetering, I accepted this unusual offering and thanked her profusely.

When I got out, she was already out, reapplying her lipstick. Hey, wait a second. She’s the same girl I had noticed when I was waiting to be taken to my table by the server. A box fringe, a yellow skirt and a red lipstick. Instinctively I said exactly what’s on my mind, without bothering to edit. “I noticed you when I came in, I love your style!” She smiled, kind of thrown off by the compliment, and said, “Gee, thank you!” We both went back to our respective tables, a little lighter on our feet — from the impromptu compliments and bladder relief both. Stranger kindness begets stranger kindness, I suppose.

There have been many more occasions where I have felt like a part of a larger community because of strangers — communities of women, of foreigners, of creatives or human beings overall. The girl at the bar who noticed my eyebrows, I’m talking to you. Every person who comments on my hair, you should know you help me be me by vocalising your appreciation for something that has previously been a source of debilitating insecurity.

Just this weekend, on the city ferry on my way to a Sunday picnic, a man I presume to be in his 70s started talking to me. He told me that he thought it was a beautiful spring day. I nodded while blissfully squinting my eyes at the swashbuckling Australian sunshine, caressed by the river breeze. He was on a wheelchair and had a rudraksh mala around his neck. He patted the seat next to him, encouraging me to sit. I sat down and noticed he had a voice that sounded like it could belong to an ice-cream seller from an children’s book. It sounded like he was whistling with a caramel marble in his mouth, if that makes any sense at all.

He told me where he was from in Australia and that he was on his way to collect more Rudraksh from the nearby tree. He told me he can’t speak “Indian”, but he knows all the bhajjans. He also sang one. He then told me about Shiva’s tear manifesting itself in the form of these sacred beads. He asked me if I was liking it here. He got off at the next stop, while making meaningfully dialogue with a baby in a pram and waving to the little one’s visibly tired mother. She gratefully waved back.

In a world where strangers are looked upon as the bearers of ill fortune or cooties — or both — it is important to notice that they aren’t always scary. Most of them are probably just looking for social mirroring or a simple acknowledgement of their presence. Often they offer the very same thing in return. They come around bearing surprises, self-esteem boosts, emotional resonance and sometimes even in-the-moment-friendships.

So pay attention.