Hi there! I’m Emma, WomenWorking.com’s new Web Editor. We’re in the process of expanding our blog to bring you even more ideas and insight on how to extend daring behavior to every aspect of your life. This week’s daring challenge? Talk to strangers. (Well, the right ones, anyway.)
If you graduated from kindergarten, talking to strangers is probably right up there with pulling hair and eating paste on your list of cardinal no-no’s. While many lessons from early education will serve you wonderfully in your adult life (“please,” “thank you,” and the art of the power nap, to name a few), the old “don’t talk to strangers” adage is one to toss out with those unfortunate corduroy overalls (what was your mother thinking?).
Cocktails may have replaced candy as our icebreaker of choice, but for many young professionals, the prospect of an unfamiliar interaction is as ominous as that of an unmarked van. Industry events provide a built-in excuse to mingle, but what about informal networking? Consciously engaging in everyday interactions casts an even wider net of opportunity. Serendipity puts us all in a constant do-si-do, and for all you know, your next big break could be standing next to you in line at Starbucks.
Informal networking means choosing to care about the world around you. Being in the right place at the right time is a start, but you also have to be in the right frame of mind. Think of an aspiring writer unknowingly seated next to a literary agent on the bus. As tempting as it can be to zone out with your iPod on the morning commute, a warm smile and a brief comment on a shared sensory experience (“Do I smell curry? I’ve been looking for a great Indian place in the neighborhood. Any thoughts?”) can mean the difference between a missed connection and a life-changing introduction. (Use your judgment when it comes to safety, ladies—no informal networking on public transportation alone at 3am).
If the person is unresponsive, don’t be annoying—but don’t feel embarrassed, either. You’ll probably never see them again, and you’ll eventually feel less intimidated by the idea of putting yourself out there. Even if all you have is a brief conversation about the weather, becoming more comfortable with small talk keeps the mental muscles that allow you to spark more meaningful relationships alive, and practicing your professional charm on civilians will help give you the confidence to nail that first impression when it really counts. And if you do happen to walk away with the business card of your idol’s sister’s former roommate’s dog-walker? That’s serendipity in action.
Opportunity is like lightning. You never know when it will strike, and it rarely comes the same way twice. When you close yourself off to strangers, you’re essentially erecting a bomb shelter around your professional network. You may avoid getting burned, but as another well-known adage reminds us—no risk, no reward. This week, think of every person you meet as a question mark card in Guess Who? (We’re assuming you played that one in kindergarten as well). Recall the child who unselfconsciously struck up a friendship with whoever could master a one-armed hang at the jungle gym. Be interested in the world around you, and the world will be interested in you—and that’s an emotional investment that just might earn you some interest.
—Emma Aubry Roberts