In this Just Melissa episode, I explore my “Melissa talks to strangers” experiment from 2013, the unexpected impact this simple practice has had on every area of my life, and how I’ve turned these initially awkward efforts into an easy, fulfilling daily habit. I’ll share how you can transform normally mundane social exchanges into meaningful encounters that can spark joy, spread happiness, and leave you feeling more present and connected; provide tips for starting your own talking-to-strangers experiment; and explain why this practice works so well for introverts, specifically.
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Hi, my name is Melissa Urban and you’re listening to Do the Thing, a podcast where we explore what’s been missing every time you’ve tried to make a change and make it stick.
Today I’m talking about yet another self experiment I undertook more than six years ago and how it once again brought unexpected benefits into every area of my life. Today’s theme is connection. How you can transform normally mundane social exchanges into meaningful encounters that can spark joy, spread happiness, and leave all of us feeling more present with and connected to our fellow humans. I hope by exploring these just Melissa topics, you’ll have your own light bulb moment and successfully do the thing. In today’s modern world, we are all so much more connected than ever, but more starved than ever for authentic personal connection. Despite all this social media comments and DMs text messages and Marco Polo videos we send and receive each day, we’re lonely. Technology, our overly scheduled, lives, stress, and the way social media makes it look like our lives are perfect, makes it harder than ever to seek authentic in-person social connections.
And as I figured out when I moved from New Hampshire to Utah, it’s really hard to make new friends as an adult. What if there was an untapped resource for social engagement? Something that required minimal effort from you that seamlessly fit into your already richly scheduled day, something that left you feeling better about yourself in the world, where you felt like you could show up fully and presently as yourself, something that allowed you to feel more connected to your community and your fellow humans but didn’t require investing hours of your time or drawing deep from your energetic resources. I discovered just this source more than six years ago and it kinda changed my life.
Today I want to tell you about my Melissa talks to strangers experiment and how you might discover that talking to strangers is the thing that’s been missing in your longing for more real connection in your life. I grew up on the east coast and I spent most of my life there. I was born and raised in New Hampshire and lived in various cities in New Hampshire, like basically all my life. And here’s how I describe East coasters. We’re not rude, we just don’t need to talk to you. If you’re from the east coast, maybe you can relate. We do things really fast and unless it’s transactional or I actually know you, there’s very little reason to start a conversation and this has always worked just fine for me because as an upholder I just want to get things done and so I don’t need any unnecessary conversation around my transactional experience with you.
Also, I’m an introvert and as an introvert it’s expensive for me to give you my energy. Like the more time I spend engaging with people out in the world, the more time I need by myself to recharge. So I would not spend my social currency on things like, you know, talking to my cashier or my bank teller or my Barista. I would save it for family and friends and I would keep those engagements to a very cursory like hi and thanks. And I don’t know if everyone on the east coast is like this, but this is definitely my experience and I notice a huge difference when I go home to visit now compared to where I live now, which is Utah. So I moved out here to the West about nine years ago and I immediately discovered that the culture here is very different. So our first week here we walked into a local grocery store here called Liberty Heights Fresh and our cashier greeted us with this super chirpy, hey, how are you, you guys doing anything fun this weekend?
And my partner at the time who, who’s originally from British Columbia and an extrovert to boot, totally chatted her up so happily and I bagged groceries and gave her like a weird little side-eye and we walked out of the store and I remember saying, she doesn’t know us. Why does she care what we’re doing this weekend? And he had to explain to me that people are different in the west and other parts of the country. And that chatting up strangers is a pretty normal occurrence. I thought it was really weird and I did not participate for a long time. So long that like very often when I would be out in public engaging people would say, you’re not from here, are you? But in 2013 I thought, okay, I live here now I should probably try to fit in a little better. So over lunch, one day I hatched this experiment, Melissa talks to strangers, I called it.
So for 30 days I committed that I would talk to basically everyone that I came into contact with for more than a few seconds. So this was like wait, staff, baristas, the front desk person at the gym, my Uber driver, everyone. I thought it would be really weird and awkward, but it actually turns out that it wasn’t. I thought people would think I was weird, but I couldn’t believe how like 99% of people happily opened up right away. I learned to ask open, but noninvasive questions like anything exciting happened today or that tattoo is really interesting. Did you get it done around here or stealing from my liberty heights cashier. You doing anything fun this weekend? I’d hear stories of wonderful and awful customers. I’d hear about an exam. They were studying for a party. They were throwing favorite meals they’ve eaten or cooked like we talked about kids and partners and foods and hikes and travel and every subject under the sun.
It is remarkable how much you can cover in just a few minutes with a total stranger, but we would, up in these randomly begun conversations, I would get a glimpse, just a really small glimpse and narrow window into some aspect of their life for just a minute or two. But these glimpses were so rich. They felt so nourishing from a total stranger. Someone I would probably never see again. I noticed that car share rides were a huge opportunity. I was traveling a ton for whole 30 I was in Uber’s and lifts a lot. I would always have like 15 or 20 minutes at least to draw out my driver’s life experience. So I heard about the motorcycles they rode, The trips they took, the marriages that were flourishing. I asked more than one Uber driver who mentioned he’d been married for more than 25 years what’s your secret? What’s your advice?
And they were always so happy to share. I heard about marriages ending, I heard about kids they were proud of. I heard about their kids with addiction. And interestingly I heard a lot of their own recovery stories. It feels like the universe put me in a lot of cars with a lot of recovering addicts and alcoholics. So that was interesting. I learned through these interactions that everyone has a story and every single person I talked to was really interesting. I could not believe how much I enjoyed these interactions. I met some remarkable people. I used to share them on Instagram under the Hashtag Melissa talks to strangers. So sometimes I would take photos with them or I’d snap a picture of like their steering wheel or their now empty exit row seat. But I would share these experiences on Instagram talking about all the incredible strangers I met and what we talked about.
I met professional athletes, I met pilots, I met authors, parents, grandparents. I was going back through my old photos and I remembered a dashing former race car driver named Gus. So apparently if you watch my Instagram stories, you know I have a soft spot for older men named Gus. But I remember when I told Gus what kind of motorcycle I rode, he laughed and said, that’s the first bike I ever stole. Gus might be the coolest person I’ve ever met. I also learned that these interactions didn’t have to be particularly meaningful to fill me up sometimes they were really meaningful. So once I was in California on book tour and my escort was driving me back from an event, we had a significant amount of time stuck in traffic and she mentioned how much she really enjoyed hearing me talk because her daughter is also a recovering addict.
And that led to a long, very heartfelt conversation about how helpless she feels and how much she felt like it was her fault. And it was me reassuring her that it wasn’t. And telling her all of the ways that she is already supporting her daughter and how she can support her daughter. It was a really meaningful conversation and I had a few of those where it was obvious that God put me in this person’s path for a reason, but without my talking to strangers experiment, we never would have really connected. I would say most of them were just surface level, a few like chit chats back and forth and then I, you know, left their line or got up from the table. But still I was completely surprised by how much I gained from each and every one of these experiences. One minute here, two minutes there a couple times throughout my day.
It left me feeling so good. I was so much happier after I left those engagements and I feel like the people I left were happier too. Like we were both smiling, we were both laughing. I feel like I made someone else’s Day a little bit better and I absolutely know that it made my day better. Another unexpected benefit was that it made me really good at small talk for things like parties or work events. I was already like pretty comfortable in that environment, but when you get to practice several times a day in these completely safe environments, it really bumps up your small talk game like no matter what in these talking to stranger experiments, your interaction is limited. Like at some point I’m walking away and I may not see them again. Chances are I’m never going to, so there’s like no pressure whatsoever. If it’s awkward, if I say something dumb, which I’ll tell you about later because I have said my share of dumb things.
It’s a cautionary tale. You just learn and do something different next time. But eventually I moved away from like, how’s your day going to coming up with really creative ways to open conversations and I practiced staying really present for just those few moments, which made me even more comfortable to walk into a party where I didn’t know anybody. One of the most common questions I get when I talk about this experiment is, well, what do you do if someone doesn’t want to talk? I honestly can only remember like maybe one or two times where someone didn’t want to talk. Like I would open with like something funny or I’d ask a question and they would just sort of like brush it off. Maybe it happened more often than I’m remembering, but like honestly, 99% of the time people were really happy to engage with me.
I would say it was way more frequent that I didn’t want to talk. I would be in a bad mood that would be cranky. I would be over tired. I’d be like over socialized and I would think to myself like I do not want to come up with something nice to say to this total stranger, but I’m a Gretchen Rubin upholder so for the sake of the experiment, I would force myself to do it anyway. The most interesting part was that when I was at my crankiest or the most down talking to this total stranger, even for just a few minutes, completely lifted my spirits. It was an instant and powerful transformation. I was so, again, I keep saying blown away, but like this whole experiment was just so shocking to me that these short interactions with total strangers could affect me so much. It was such a powerful lesson in the beauty of human connection.
And occasionally these interactions did lead to so much more than just a two minute interaction with a stranger. My waitress at Takashi became a friend in real life and now owns my favorite breakfast spot where I see her regularly. I follow more than one of my Starbucks Baristas on Instagram. Hi Dallin. Hi Amber. Because our interactions at the drive through window were always so fun. And now we like connect in real life. And remember three years ago I went to Norway. I spent two weeks hiking in Norway. The whole reason that I went to Norway was because I talked to a stranger. My sister and I met these two guys from Norway, Arfinn and Marcus at a restaurant. When we were in Sedona, they were sitting next to us at the bar. We were eating dinner and we just started chatting them up. Three hours later we had exchanged phone numbers and Instagram accounts.
We had taken pictures together and Marcus said, if you ever come to Norway, make sure you let me know. And so when I was thinking about going to Norway, I hit him up on Instagram and I was like, Hey, I’m thinking about coming up to Norway and he helped me plan my entire trip, start to finish, where to go, where to stay, how to get there. They met me for dinner one night, so we got to reconnect in Norway and like share memories. The whole reason I had that life changing trip is because I talked to strangers at a restaurant. So honestly you never know what you’re going to get when you open yourself up to connecting in real life to another person.
The original experiment was slated for a month but it lasted way longer than just a month. Much like my year of strong and bendy. I conscientiously kept the practice up for like over two years and by now it’s just habit. I’ve become one of those people who wants to know about your weekend even though I don’t know you, I feel like the east coast wouldn’t know what to do with me and yes I do do this when I go back east and I know I get weird looks and I don’t really mind. So back to the idea of my introverted self, this is like one of the most interesting parts of the experiment. I am a super duper introvert. If you follow me on Instagram, you know that after big events I like to get into bed in all my clothes all by myself and like that’s how I recharge.
I’m very introverted, thanks to my work with whole 30 I’ve definitely extended my capacity to extrovert a lot so I can now handle all day events with hundreds of people and I can still bring my full energy to the very last person standing in my book signing line. But I’m still very introverted. I still need to recharge alone and I do still have to spend my energy, currency or capital very carefully. So I prepared for this, talking to strangers, experiment to drain me even more. I was kind of like, okay, we’re going to be spending this energetic currency now, not just the people you know and people you love, but with total strangers. But I discovered that these stranger interactions don’t actually tap my energy much like way less than I expected. I thought it would cost more. And it turns out that it doesn’t.
And I’ve been thinking about this in kind crafting this episode and thinking about what I wanted to share, because I’ve never talked about this aspect before, and this is why I think it’s not quite so energetically like expensive for me. I think in part because there’s no emotional investment, like I’m fully present in the conversation. I actually care what you’re saying back to me. I’m definitely being empathetic, but I’m not emotionally invested. So if you’ve had a really hard day or you’re sharing a story that’s emotionally complex or involved, I know that I don’t have to stay connected to you or the story once I leave. And because of that, I think it lets me expend more energy for you in a less costly way. For me. I think another reason it feels less energetically expensive is because I know we’re only in this engagement for a finite period of time.
So when a friend calls me on the phone, first of all, I don’t know what I’m going to get. Good News, bad news, hard call, easy call, and I don’t know if it’s going to be two minutes or two hours. In this situation, I know that we are only going to continue to have a conversation as long as I’m in your line or sitting at your table and the minute I get up and walk away, our engagement is over. So knowing that it’s just a very finite period of time that I have to expend this energy makes it feel less expensive. It’s not only less energetically expensive. I actually have discovered that I get a little energy boost from these interactions. It actually refills me a little bit and I think in part it’s because I see the smiles on their faces when I leave. I honestly believe that I have made their day just a little bit better by engaging, by smiling, by being kind, by asking them something about them and just by like making this connection.
And I know how good it feels when someone’s genuinely interested in you, even if it’s just for a few minutes. I think for these reasons, these stranger interactions is actually a great way for me to get the benefit of in-person social interaction without tapping my limited social energy. It kind of feels like a hack. So now that I’ve shared a little bit about my Melissa talks to strangers experiment, I want to tell you how you can take on your own social experiment. So you know, along the way I’ve learned some things, I’ve developed some tips, I’ve made some mistakes, and I thought I would share those here with you in case some of you want to take advantage of these in person social engagements that may bring you so much more than you have to spend energetically. So here are some thoughts. The first thing I’ll say is that literally everyone is a candidate.
You could talk to anybody in the whole wide world. But if that feels a little intimidating, think about talking to someone you’re already talking to. So you’re already talking to your cashier at the grocery store, your Barista at the drive through window while you’re waiting for your coffee, your rideshare driver, or your waitress. These are all fantastic prospects because you’re already engaged in at least some level of conversation. If you wanted to take this next level, you could talk to people you’re not talking to, but could like the people next to you at the restaurant or the person behind you in line. So the only thing I’ll say though is just be conscientious about this, right? You don’t want to interrupt someone’s flow or interrupt their work or barge into what seems like an important conversation. So like don’t start a conversation with the bank teller counting out your change or the Barista.
If you have a really long line behind you or if you can tell that the people at the table next to you are engaged in a job interview, like be a little bit sensitive here. Opening these conversations may feel awkward, but I promise it’s not that hard. So the first thing you can do if this is your goal to start a conversation with a stranger is to smile. Especially if the person that you’re going to talk to is providing a service. They never know who’s coming up to their counter. You may be there to complain or ask for the manager or like go off on this rant about how everything that they’ve done or this company has done is wrong. So smiling’s sends a message that you’re friendly and you’re kind and you’re not there to complain. And that can be really, really helpful in having the person be receptive to your conversation.
To start the conversation, I would skip things like how are you or how’s your day? Those are just so standard. We ask those questions and I don’t actually think anyone expects to hear back how your day actually is. The only response you’re going to get is fine. Thanks. How are you? That’s not what we’re going for here. There are some topics that are safe but kind of boring like the weather. So fine. You could start there if you want to, but that may not elicit the kind of really fun interaction you’re aiming for. I like the idea of asking an unexpected question, not something that’s so off-kilter that they now wonder if you’re like creepy, but just something that kind of shakes the day up in a fun way. One question I often like to ask of my whole foods cashiers, cause I know that their stores open for really long hours is are you at the beginning of your shift or the end?
Because their answer, you know, can provide good fodder for followup. So if they’re, at the beginning it was, you know, oh, did you do anything fun last night or were you up late last night? If there at the end of their shift it’s like, oh, you must be really happy to get off of work. Have anything exciting going on tonight and that can prompt nice conversation. Or if I’m at the grocery store I’ll ask my cashier, have you tried this yet? Or if they pick up a food and kind of look at it a little longer, I’ll ask that question and then I can kind of offer my experience based on their answer. Or I can ask my server, where do you eat when you’re not eating here? Which is like kind of fun, right? I’m looking for a restaurant reco and obviously you like this food, but like where else do you eat?
I feel like compliments are nice, but they have to be really genuine and then often they can be a total dead end. Ooh, I really like your pin. And they’re like, thanks. And that’s not really gonna get you anywhere, but you can be a little bit more creative and kind of go with the flow and start some fun conversations. So tattoos are a good one because generally people get tattoos because they want you to notice them or like they want to project what they’re thinking or feeling inside out to the world. So I’ll often ask someone with a tattoo, like, that’s a beautiful tattoo. Does it have special meaning? Or Oh, you’ve got a few tattoos on your arm or you working up to something like a full sleeve. Occasionally someone will ask me about my tattoo, the ring on my left hand ring finger that I’m in the process of getting removed.
So they’ll say like, oh, is that a wedding ring? And I’ll say yes, unfortunately. And I don’t mind talking about it. And that actually always leads to like kind of some kind of fun conversation. I don’t mind making fun of myself about it. And they’ll either tell me their story, something like, yes, I almost did that, or we thought about that. Or they’ll tell me about a friend who’s in the same boat or we’ll just start the conversation of like tattoos are actually permanent. And then we’ll kind of laugh and talk about our tattoo experiences. But that’s just one avenue of conversation that’s like a little bit creative, a little bit observational and can spark some fun discussion. I’ll tell you about another one. There’s one morning at Target where my young cashier, I caught him in a yawn during his morning shift and I was like caught you, did you have a late night?
And then we had a great conversation about the exam he was up late studying for, I’ll tell you about another fun one that happened at target. I talk to a lot of people at Target by the way. I was in line with my son who was a toddler at the time and there was a woman in front of me in line with her toddler and they were putting some Thomas the train books on the counter. So you know, she kind of smiled at me behind to looking at my kid and put her book on the counter. And I took a chance and I gave her a little smile and I kind of whispered to her, I think Thomas the Train is super creepy. And she started laughing and she was like, oh my goodness, I hate Thomas the Train too. And we just had this like really fun shared bonding moment over the fact that our kids make us read books that we sometimes do not like. That was a favorite of mine.
Okay. I’ll tell you one more really fun one. I was standing in line at Barnes and Noble. I had this big stack of books in my hand and the top book was a fiction book called Barbara the Slut. It was very good, by the way. Anyway, the woman behind me was an older, very prim and proper looking woman. So I’ve been talking to strangers mode. So I turned around and I say to her like, Oh, you reading anything good today? And she shared the book that was in her pile and then she looked over my shoulder and she said, what are you reading today? And the book on top is called Barbara the Slut. So she, she kind of gave it like a look and then she started laughing and she said, I hope it’s very good. And we kind of laughed cause I felt a little bit like I was caught doing something naughty even though I wasn’t.
And she was a lovely woman. We talked about all the books in my pile and the books that she was reading and it was just this really authentic, very sweet engagement. I will say that you have to be careful in your openings though. I think the biggest mistake you can make is to make an assumption. So I will tell you one mistake I made when I was doing this, um, I forget where I was, but boy do I remember I was in conversation with an older man and a young woman and sometime during the conversation I looked at her and I looked at him and I said, your daughter has beautiful eyes. And he paused and stared right at me and said, that’s my girlfriend. And I thought, Oh crap, that’s not cool. So don’t make assumptions, don’t ask any sensitive questions. You might think something like, do you have kids or are you married?
Is innocuous, but it’s not. That can be a really sensitive subject and that’s a little too prying. Don’t ask where they live cause that can come off really creepy. Um, and don’t ask anything that assumes their gender. Also asking where are you from based on their skin color or accent is culturally insensitive. So please don’t do that. You really just want to stick to safe topics here. Observations, something that’s directly in front of you. Sharing something about yourself. Like if I hear one more Christmas carol, I’m going to lose my mind or the Halloween decorations are out already, but I have to say I like Halloween way more than Christmas. Those are relatively safe. It’s also important once you open this conversation to stay present in the moment and actively listen to their response. So if you ask a question and then immediately start scrolling through your phone or looking around, that’s not an engaged conversation.
Like you want to give this person the present of your presence for those two moments that you’re in this engagement. And honestly it’s a gift for you as well. So hold yourself to staying present and give this person your full attention for the few moments that you have. It’s actually really good practice for active listening in other areas of your life too. And then finally, if they’re not open to it or they decide not to talk, fine, just don’t keep talking to them. It definitely happened to me a few times. I remember walking into a Starbucks, I was playing reggae music and it was right around the holidays and I said to the cashier, you must be so psyched that they’re not pumping Christmas music through the speakers nonstop. And he just Kinda like looked at me and gave me a little nod and then moved on.
No big deal. Just move on. If they don’t want to talk, don’t talk, but also don’t take it personally. Remember, it’s not about you. There are any number of reasons that someone behind a counter or in line next to you might not want to talk and none of them have to do with you. So really don’t sweat it. The most important piece of feedback I’ll give you is just keep practicing. The more you do it, the easier it gets, the more comfortable it is and the more positive feedback you get from others and the more you get to experience how good it feels for you, the more you’ll want this to become a habit. And listen, if you’re from the south or the Midwest, you might be listening to this thinking like, Melissa, this is just what we do, but is it still, is it for those of us who are so in mashed in social media and we’re so richly scheduled and we work and we have kids and they’re over scheduled and we feel like we don’t a lot of time for ourselves.
Are you really making this kind of effort still? Yes, your area is very friendly and you’re known for your, you know, open friendly people, but like are you actually still making this effort in your own life? I think if you observe your own behavior, you might discover you’ve been pulling back more. Whether it’s out of habit, whether it’s out of schedule, whether you’re just overstressed or under slept. Think about it. Think about whether this is something you could enact in your life in a way that feels relatively effortless and that doesn’t cost you a lot energetically. That doesn’t take a ton of extra time, but gives you all the benefit of in person social interaction. This is such an unexpected, previously untapped resource without any extra drain. Hopefully if you’re also an introvert, I feel like this could be so powerful if you decide to take this on.
I would love to hear about your own social experiments. I want to hear what you opened with and what they said and the kind of conversation you had, how it made you feel, how you think it made them feel, whether this aspect is spilling over into any other area of your life. I want to hear all about it so you can post photos on Instagram using the Hashtag Melissa talks to strangers so I can see them and you can add your story to my collection or you can DM me a photo or a description of your experience. Any way you want to get it to me. Send a raven if you want to, but I really want to hear if you decide to take this on the impact that this has in your life. I honestly suspect that this could be a missing factor in helping us all feel just a little bit more connected.
Before I wrap this episode up, I do want to mention one thing. This episode was done a couple of days ago and I hadn’t sent it to my producer yet because something was bothering me. There was something missing and I realized after listening to it again that what was missing was an acknowledgement of my privilege in this situation and what do I mean by that? I know because I am a white, straight able bodied person with thin privilege and pretty privilege that I’m able to go out into the world and talk to a stranger and completely expect that they are going to receive me happily and that they’re going to talk back to me most of the time and that if they don’t decide to engage in conversation with me, that it’s not about me. I never have to worry that it’s because of the color of my skin or because of the person I’m holding hands with or because of the way that I look.
That’s an immense privilege walking out into the world, feeling like you can talk to anybody and be well received. I know people who do not have that privilege. I know that coach Jacob has talked about the dirty looks he gets when he goes out in public, holding his husband’s hand. I have black friends who tell me about being treated rudely by customer service people and they always have to wonder if it’s because of their skin. I have a brother in law who’s in a wheelchair and I have seen people be dismissive of him simply because of his disability. It never occurred to me that other people might not have the same opportunities that I do until I really started examining my own privilege. So I think it’s very important to let you know that I know that part of the reason I was able to undertake this experiment and get such incredible results is because of the privilege I have simply by being born into this world the way that I was born. So I invite all of you to think about this exercise and whether this is something you want to take on in your personal life. And if you do, whether there are certain privileges assigned to you because of the way you are in this world that would make this experiment easier for you than it would for someone else. While thinking about an acknowledging our privilege is difficult and certainly uncomfortable, it’s also the very first step in helping us understand the individual life experiences of our fellow humans and connect with each other with more empathy.