I'm big on communication: I like to talk, write, emote, gesticulate, lecture, sign, and raise a well-manicured eyebrow in the most speaking of manners. Since I'm big on communication, it should come as no surprise to anybody that I like to talk to strangers. (Except, on occasion, to the strangers themselves. Some of them are very surprised. But more on that below.)
The difficulty in talking to strangers is that it goes against everything that our mothers taught us about being safe. And it also goes against common sense. Sometimes.
The trick, then, is not really in knowing how to talk to strangers, but in knowing when it is appropriate to do so.
When It Is Okay to Talk to Strangers:
1. When they are sitting on or directly in front of your apartment stoop. Even though when you speak to these people they might stare at you as if you have just landed from Mars, it is still totally within your rights to speak to the pot heads sitting directly outside of your apartment. It's important to greet them in a friendly way in order to establish that they are the interlopers, not you. Even though they will stare at you as if you are something that they just recently found on the bottom of their shoe, do not be concerned. This is mostly because their brains usually are not firing on all cylinders. Besides, if they are loitering directly outside of your apartment, they are probably friends with your neighbor (you hope), and it's always nice to foster positive communication with your neighbors whenever you can. Especially if you plan to ask them to crank down their music at 3:00am.
2. When you can't remember what is on your grocery list. Sometimes when I'm standing in the produce section and can't remember why I walked over there, it's helpful to begin musing aloud about what I might have been planning on purchasing. I know, however, that it's highly likely that one of my students or friends from church might chance by at any moment, and I don't want to be caught talking to myself; therefore, if another person happens to be nearby, I make eye contact with him so as to seem as if I'm not talking to myself. I wouldn't want people to see me talking to myself in the produce aisle: that would make me seem crazy.
3. When you have done something silly. Slip and fall while running into a store during a downpour? Spend more than two seconds pushing on a door that says pull? Get the pocket of your sweater caught on a knob while walking past a door and have it half ripped off of your torso? Fall off of Ft. McHenry National Monument in Baltimore while trying to take a jumping picture?1 We've all been there. Chances are very high that the people around you have not only witnessed your spectacular display of incompetence, but that they are also already mentally preparing how they are going to tell the story around the dinner table that night. What better gift could you give to them than to leave them with a parting comment that is both pithy and adroit? Or a quick verbal satire? Or a clever pun? The options are endless. (Unless you have sustained a blow to the head. In that case, hush up. Nothing you are going to say is going to make any sense.)
4. When you are time traveling and cannot find a newspaper to check the date, making it necessary to talk to a passerby in order to ascertain your place along the space-time continuum. This one is self-explanatory.
When *NOT* to Talk to Strangers:
1. When you are in the United Kingdom. I don't know why, but the Brits don't seem to like it. Perhaps the 1940s era "Loose Lips Sink Ships" campaign was a bit too effective and far-reaching for its own good. Anyway, if you can't stand the thought of people fixing you with withering stares and looking down their noses at you on the Tube, then don't attempt it while on the other side of the Atlantic.
2. When the stranger in question is a creeper. Ladies, I mean it. If your Creeper Alarm is ringing, resist the urge.2 In the event of a creeper-neighbor crossover, we have found it best to err on the side of caution with this one. In the event that your neighbor or your neighbor's pot-head friends emit a creeper vibe, follow this rule rather than Rule 1 in the above list.
3. When the other person looks to be the type that will never stop talking to you. People like this are everywhere, but I've found them to be especially prevalent in thrift stores. You make one well-intentioned (ironic) comment about a ceramic dog, and the next thing that you know, you have a new best friend who cannot wait to tell you about every ceramic piece (or every dog) that she (or her daughter or her grandchildren) has ever owned.
The truth about talking to strangers is that it really is a double-edged sword. There are pros and cons, pluses and minuses, boons and banes; however, with adult supervision (if needed), talking to strangers can be both entertaining and rewarding for all parties involved.
1 - More on this in the future post "How to Jump Off Things (and Not Die)!"
2 - More on this in the future post "How to Avoid Stalkers."