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The Word on the Street: Talking to Strangers

For one week our reporter said 'hi' to every person she saw. Shame on those of you who ignored her.

 by Mani O'Brien
 published on Thursday, February 9, 2006

Mani O'Brien greeted every stranger she saw for a week. Here she acosts CIS sophomore David McKenzie at the grocery store where they chat about how hard it is to make friends with strangers. The experiment gave O'Brien's confidence a boost.
Tiffany Tcheng / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Mani O'Brien greeted every stranger she saw for a week. Here she acosts CIS sophomore David McKenzie at the grocery store where they chat about how hard it is to make friends with strangers. The experiment gave O'Brien's confidence a boost. "The people I met all week left me with a grin on my face," she says.
 

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When you pass a stranger in a parking lot, the grocery store or in a class, most likely -- if you are anything like me -- you glance away, failing to acknowledge the presence of the other person, even if you are standing three feet away.

Maybe I'm too over-analytical and eager to please, a couple of my obsessive Virgo tendencies, but this situation bothers me every time it happens. So for one week, I did the unthinkable -- I made eye contact and actually said "hello" to complete strangers everywhere I went. And to my surprise, people did not think I was crazy.

During my week of friendly greetings, I found it challenging to remember to actually say "hello."

Typically, my routine for passing strangers consists of a quick moment of eye contact, then a glance to the side, followed by a quick look back at the stranger with a small smile, ending with the permanent gaze at the ground.

By the end of the week, I was going out of my way to say "hi" to anyone who passed me, even if they were riding swiftly by on a bike or trying avoiding eye contact altogether.

Rita Archaubault, a licensed counselor at ASU, says she encourages students to say "hello" to one other.

"It's common sense," Archaubault says. "It's certainly more engaging than a stoneface and silence."

Archaubualt reminded me of my first two years of college, when I used to go for a full day of classes without saying a word all day, despite being in the presence of hundreds of people.

"When you say 'hi' you are more apt to becoming engaged with people," Archaubault says. "Most people will respond to a smile or kind word."

What Archaubault says is so true, and yet so many of us live our public lives in isolation. It sounds simple enough, and yet, it's so common to endure awkward silence even in crowded rooms. To break the silence, keep the following in mind:

Approach really counts. Over the course of my week, I experimented with many different types of greetings. At the beginning I was most comfortable with a shy, nearly inaudible "hello." I typically received a head-nod or smile in return.

Seeking more of a reaction, I progressed to a laid-back, "Hey, how's it going?" and even high-pitched chirps of "Hi!"

The result: people love a shrill "hello" over a muffled one. Making an idiot out of myself was completely worth the reaction that I got. The most important lesson I learned was that if you are confident, or at least act like you are, people will take your lead and say "hello" right back.

Time and place matter. The most challenging place to say "hi" to people was at ASU during the day. I didn't anticipate that trying to make eye contact in a sea of students would be so difficult. Some people ignored me altogether, especially if I was standing alone. Others gave me a puzzled "Do I know you?" look and a quick smile.

I was shocked when a guy who I had made eye contact with actually said hello first. He even followed up with a warm "How are you?" in the two seconds it took as we shuffled past each other at the door of the Memorial Union.

As unfriendly as ASU can be during the day, the campus transforms at night. Women walking side by side gave me warm greetings. Even people walking past me 10 feet away and riding past me on skateboards would send a kind "hello" my way.

The best place to say hello to strangers was the grocery store. I found myself in the cereal aisle with David McKenzie, a computer information systems sophomore, along with two other men -- strangers to both of us -- talking about pineapple juice.

People don't treat you like a weirdo -- at least not the majority of them. I have to admit that some people intimidate me, like tall, hot guy with chiseled features and gorgeous body who brushed past me in a parking lot. My stomach knotted up before I casually threw a hello his way. When he said "hello" back to me, my fears melted away into giddy satisfaction.

This handsome stranger, like most of the other people I met all week, left me with a grin on my face and a boost of confidence.

Reach the reporter at mani.obrien@asu.edu.



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