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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Challenge #2: Talk to Strangers

“Stop saying you’re sorry.”

I wasn’t even a full three hours into this challenge when I found myself being lectured by a large, domineering woman with huge curly hair and a voice that seemed like it was created for the sole purpose of giving mischievous 10-year-olds a good talking to. Or, as the case so happened to be, a curious yet timid 28-year-old who needed the same.

What absolute perfect timing.

I started this 30-day challenge to break out—not because I’m particularly shy or sheltered, but because I have a tendency to stay in my own little world. I have my friends, my music, my books, and my neighborhood, the section of San Francisco I know well and call home.

But there’s more out there, and so much going on that I never pay attention to. So I’m making my little world a little bigger. I’m paying attention to the people around me. And not just that—I’m actually talking to them.

It was much harder than I thought it would be.

Day One: Sorry Americans

If you didn’t know, the first week of October is Banned Books Week. This Monday night, day one of the challenge, I went to a Banned Books Week event at a popular bookstore in the Haight, an area of San Francisco where much of the hippie movement of the 1960s and some of the Beat movement took place.

While I was sitting and waiting for the event to start, a woman passed in front of me who wanted to get through and sit to my right.

“Pardon me,” I said, before moving my legs (which were crossed and entirely in her way).

And that’s when she said it: “Stop saying you’re sorry. Why are you so sorry? You didn’t do anything.”

And I’m not going to lie, she was kind of scary. But I needed to talk to a stranger and here one was, so I figured, OK, why not?

I told her it was my natural reaction to apologize, and then she pretty much let me have it. Apparently, Americans say they’re sorry too much. Especially women. The woman told me that, in other countries, if someone wants to pass by you, you simply get out of the way. No “I’m sorry” about it.

“You don’t excuse people and you don’t get excused,” she said. She said language was so telling, so obvious, that even though she wasn’t a linguist, she saw how words affected us and our interactions.

After the event was over she reached over, grabbed my hand, and squeezed. “Don’t be sorry,” she said.

And the side of me that likes to romanticize such moments and assign some deeper meaning to everything that may or may not even exist just about passed out.

So yeah, that was pretty rad.

Day Two: Failed Attempts

After a great start on Monday, Tuesday was an absolute failure. I tried to initiate conversations with people on the train. I complimented two women on their clothes. (All I got was a simple thank you.) I asked a man what he was reading. (All I got was a confused look and a terse answer: “The news.”) At lunch, I smiled widely at the woman taking my order but all I got was my turkey sandwich. On the way home, I sat next to a woman who was reading a Michael Chabon novel. I asked her if she liked it.

“It’s better than I thought it would be,” she said.

That’s the best I got all day.

Day Three: The Man in Black

The next morning on the train, I stood next to a man dressed all in black. While we were stopped, another man who was trying to pay for the ride grabbed the man in black and pulled him backward. I caught the man in black’s eye and we shared a look of shock that said, “Did he really just do that?”

That wasn’t a huge deal. But on the way home I stepped on the train and who do you think was in front of me? The man in black!

This almost never happens so, of course, I got excited because I had spent another day trying to talk to people and failing. So I said, “Hi!” really loudly. Too loud.

“We rode together this morning. I feel like I know you now!”

I know. I know. That sounds so creepy right? But he was nice, so he laughed. And then we talked about proper train etiquette. How it’s OK to brush past someone, even to bump, but you should never ever grab someone and pull. That’s just not cool.

Day Four: Oregon Girls

Thursday I made it easy on myself—I went to a bar. People always go to bars to meet strangers and talk. I should have thought of this sooner.

Thursday is trivia night for me and some of my friends, so while trying to poach a table (which really should be an Olympic sport), we ended up sitting with a couple who were finishing their drinks. It just so happened that the woman went to college at the University of Oregon. I’m an Oregon State grad, so we talked about ducks, beavers, civil wars, and the great northwest.

Before they left, the couple said they should come to trivia sometime. I told them they should join my team. We’ll see what happens.

Day Five: Crazy Cat Ladies

It was Friday and, I’m sorry to say, another hard one. I feel like I need to be more aggressive and just walk up and introduce myself to someone instead of playing silly games and complimenting their shoes. But, I’ll admit it: I’m scared. Of what, I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive that the man in black and just about every other person I approached this week thinks I’m a freak.

Luckily, at the end of the night I was saved. I got home and had to go to my local corner store to pick up some food for my cat. Mike, the man who runs the store, knows me pretty well as the girl who gets wine and cat food just about every week. But tonight there was another woman there buying ice. While holding my 10 cans of cat food, I asked her if she was trying to beat the heat. (There’s been a heat wave in San Francisco recently.)

She told me the ice was for her cat. Her cat will only drink cold water.

Awesome. I couldn’t ask for a better end to the week if I tried. Here’s to the next 25 days.