In 1995, I moved to England to attend the University of Durham. I arrived a week before classes to find 3 huge boxes of crap I had shipped off months before, torn open and abandoned at the bottom of an empty stairwell. The dorm was vacant, but I was so tired I fell onto an unmade mattress and woke up after the sun had set and risen again.
When I finally woke up, I was probably the hungriest I have ever been. I had eaten all of the chalky protein bars I had packed for my Pan Am flight from SFO to Heathrow, so I had no choice but to stagger my way through town in search of food. (I have not travelled so ill-prepared since!) As I walked along the cobblestones, inhaling smells of diesel, wet pavement and the stale beer/stale urine fumes of pubs, I passed librarians on the way to work, uniformed kids hustling towards school, arms and bags flailing and lorry drivers idling on the side of the road. To every single pedestrian, I said, ‘hello.’
I was met with stares, and even snickers by the kids.
Again and again, as I made my way to Durham’s city centre, I looked people in the eye and tried to engage. By the time I made it to Safeway, I had been ignored by at least a dozen people. As I sat devouring a soggy tuna salad sandwich (with corn in the tuna salad!), I remember thinking how hard-hearted the world seemed. I was embarrassed by my foreignness and my naivete. It was the loneliest I have ever felt.
That experience seems like it happened to another person, in another era. Clearly, in 1995, I was used to people saying hello in my hometown in California. It must have been the custom to always greet another walker back then, if only in eye contact. But it is only through the memory of how shocking Durham was, that I remember how it once was in the U.S. Now, over 20 years later when I walk those same hometown streets, very few people say ‘hi.’ Most have white cords dangling from their ears, exempting them from any personal contact.
The English inaccessibility of 1995 has spread, but I am determined to change it. The demise of greeting strangers scares me. For years after returning from England I didn’t have the fortitude to lock eyes with a passerby or dare to say ‘hi.’ At some point in the last 10 years, though, I have come back to exuberant greetings. I am now the obnoxious one who habitually smiles and greets strangers, wherever we meet. Jack does too.
We all sense that human connection is fundamental to our well-being. I’ve discussed how friendships, a fulcrum of human connection, is vital to my own sense of peace. But friends start as strangers.
Finding strangers to connect requires commitment. You have to brave possible rejections. I understand that for those who tend toward shyness, this sounds super scary. But at the very least, introverts can smile, open their hearts metaphorically, and walk through a door when the invitation is given. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you must intentionally go out of your way to meet a fair number of people in order to find the special few worthy of meaningful bonds.
The easiest way to meet people as an adult is from work, or through your kids’ schools or activities. That’s fine for most, but it’s a little like cheating to me. For starters, you don’t get the broadest swath of humanity when you stick to those who are already in arms’ reach of your circle. With all the talk of resurgent tribalism in America, surrounding yourself with a homogenous posse doesn’t change that.
So how do I meet strangers who may become friends? For starters, I walk up to people I don’t know and start a conversation. I met an agreeable couple on the Mall a week ago because the man was wearing a Gonzaga baseball hat.
When I first started training at the Cathedral, I sat next to a fellow California transplant. We decided within minutes we were both ‘cool chicks worth knowing.’ Jennifer and I have celebrated birthdays together, brought our families and dogs together, and discussed everything from nut allergies to pre-HIV San Francisco.
Before we moved to VA, I joined a book group. In a few hours, I will be sharing leafy greens and diet soda with one of those book club friends, a bibliophilic Texan who has been a bartender, a realtor and an expert on the middle east.
As we become adults, we forget the thrill of ‘new relationship energy;’ a term my cousin Steve taught me about. I suspect when we forget about the excitement that can come from ‘flirting’ with new people we are susceptible to mid-life crises and marital affairs. But those new relationships can be friendships, you don’t have to destroy your other bonds. In fact, I’d argue that what people are seeking when they cheat on their partners is deep human connection they feel is lacking. As they say, ‘the sex appeal wears off.’
So, as adults charged with expanding our human connections, how else can you meet people outside of work/school/soccer practices?
Here are some ideas that have worked for me, both in landing in new cities and in entering new stages of my life:
- Choose Uber/Lyft pool. Chances are you’ll add a few minutes to your ride, but you’ll have more time to chat with the driver and other passengers not normally in your sphere. (They might not become lifelong friends, but who’s to say!)
- Travel. We don’t all have to be Rick Steves (did you know he got divorced?) but hitting the road opens you up to people in ways staying home doesn’t.
- Become a regular at a restaurant. Two of my closest friends are those who know how much I love free refills, even at 6:30 am. (Tom and Becky, I am talking to you!)
- Walk more. In our cars, we can ignore people. When you are waiting at a bus stop, hiking a trail or taking your kid to school, you meet people. Dogs are an easy foray into striking up conversations with people you don’t know. Borrow a neighbor’s if you don’t have one. (If you don’t know your neighbor, you know where to start this existential exercise! Teresa and Jocelyn, thank you for our new-found walking routine!)
- Trader Joe’s. The cashiers are abnormally friendly and even the lines can spawn friendships. I had a walking buddy I knew tangentially before we started seeing one another weekly picking up cheerfully-branded staples. (Have you heard the insider Trader Joes podcast?)
- Social media is having a crisis of identity, but my mother’s forum is made up of hundreds of women I couldn’t pick out of a lineup, but who share a listserv that is a virtual community. I have sought parenting advice, donated to causes I wouldn’t have known about and found camps for Jack when school is closed for election day. (Yes, the second Tuesday in November is a Holiday in VA. Vote November 6th even if you have to take PTO!)
My point is that meeting people, going out of your way to lock eyes with someone, is a prescription for whole-ness. Like the Grinch, your heart can grow three-times each time you turn a Who into a friend.