Talking to Strangers


There’s a  little patio bar atop the Bayside restaurant at Venetian Village in Naples that’s become our local – the place we stop mid-afternoon for a glass of wine or a beer. Over the years, we’ve gotten to know Scott, the bartender, pretty well.  Scott’s one of those guys who knows everybody pretty well. There’s definitely a local clientele at The Bay, but Scott never sees a stranger, and no matter where you’re from or how long you’re in town, if you’re sitting at the bar when Scott’s tending, you’re a regular.

On a nice day, when it’s not so humid that your wine glass drowns in its own sweat, or so windy that the plastic sheeting surrounding the bar gets battened down, we might sit there for an hour or two, staring out at the McMansions that line the bay with regal finesse, or the McYachts moored in stately splendor. And every time we go to The Bay, we get involved in fascinating conversations with strangers.

I typically don’t talk much to strangers. For one thing, I’m pretty shy and it’s hard  for me to strike up a conversation with someone I’ve never met. For another thing, the old axiom about “never talk to strangers” has been a hard one to let go of. In the 1960’s when I grew up, it was drummed into our with mind numbing regularity. But at The Bay, it’s expected. Maybe it’s like that at all neighborhood bars, I don’t know, because we don’t have a local here at home. It seems like people around here like to keep a healthy distance, even when they’re drinking. Maybe they’re afraid you’ll steal their secrets, or gather some information you can use against them. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, the few times I’ve sat at the bar anywhere around here, people don’t generally talk much amongst themselves.

But people at The Bay are very gregarious. Everybody seems to know Scott, so we all have that in common, and we tease him about his golf game or ask him about his dogs. There are always some tourists, so we all chime in with our favorite places they simply must see-eat-shop-golf. There are usually a few older men having a cocktail after a round of golf, and occasionally (if I’m the resident cute young thing, which I often am – this is Naples, you know) they’ll flirt with me a little.

Yes, I even flirt back.  It is The Bay, after all.

We once met a wonderful horsey couple from southwest England who spend every November in Naples. We exchanged email addresses and I’m under strict order to contact her the next time we’re across the Pond. We met a couple who had just purchased a vacation home to be close to their daughter and her husband who were living in the area. (Sound familiar?) We’ve surreptitiously eavesdropped on conversations with brokers, realtors, business partners, and probably lovers.

It’s just about our favorite place in Naples, and I think that’s because it’s an opportuity to connect with interesting people, even if only for a few minutes.

Our friend L., a world traveler whom we’ve been lucky enough to travel with on occasion, is famous for his habit of carrying on conversations with strangers in every corner of the world. He’ll saunter up to just about anybody in the street and start talking. “I like that hat!” he’ll exclaim. Or “What a great car!” If the person happens to be walking a dog, we know we might as well duck into a coffee shop because they’re liable to be there all morning. I love to watch him engage people in conversation, and rarely do people fail to be engaged. They might appear non-plussed for a moment, especially in foreign countries, as if such an affable American is an real anomaly. But within a second or two they’ll be smiling and gesturing, and the two will part with smiles and a handshake.

It might be nice if we talked to strangers more often. These days we often bury ourselves in our electronics rather than make eye contact with anyone. I’m guilty of that – if I’m having a cup of coffee at Panera, or waiting for my mom to finish grocery shopping, I’ll whip out my phone and check e-mail, or Facebook, or the latest blog post. Instead, I could look around the room, make eye contact with a stranger, and initiate a conversation.

It makes the experience more memorable for everyone.

How about you? Do you talk to strangers much?

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16 thoughts on “Talking to Strangers

  1. My mom is just like L. She can start a conversation with anyone, especially if they’re wearing Wisconsin shirts. I’ve been encouraging her to go on an ElderHostel trip so she can travel and make new friends, but she keeps telling me she’s too shy. Hah!

    I’m not nearly as good at talking to strangers. Mingling at conference receptions is my least favorite thing ever. I’m much better if I’m sitting next to a stranger in a theater or at a table, though. Regardless, it’s still work.

    • Those conference receptions are the WORST! Besides feeling uncomfortable talking to a stranger, you have to worry about doing something unprofessional. Ick. Once I get started talking to someone, I’m okay, but initiating the conversation is hard for me.

    • Sharry – I can highly recommend an Elderhostel (or RoadScholar, as they are called now) trip for your mom! I used to be a group leader for them and it’s a great way for people to travel, learn and meet nice and interesting people, in a comfortable and relaxed environment. There is enough room for privacy and mingling at your own pace.

  2. I have always been curious about other people and, perhaps because I have always worked with the public, find it relatively easy to strike up a conversation with strangers. Once I do so I tend to ask a lot of questions, some of them quite direct (that’s the German in me), which people are not always used to but, on the whole, they actually like it, perhaps because they sense my genuine interest in them as a person, I want to know WHO they are. Mind you, like Sharry I have never been a fan of professional networking events, they are just too contrived and I hated it when my boss wanted me to mingle so that I could find new customers. But generally I love chatting with strangers and have met some pretty interesting characters this way 🙂

  3. Most people are happy to talk to you, especially if you ask questions about them and if you genuinely interested in their answers. I AM interested in people, and often want to find out more about them, but never quite know how to go about getting a conversation started. Many times I’ve wanted to talk to someone, and then kicked myself later because I didn’t have the courage to do so!

  4. I confess – I’m a talker. I think I began losing my fear of talking to strangers when I lived in Berkeley and spent a lot of time at a coffee house on Euclid that isn’t there any more. Back in the day, you sat where there was an empty spot, and if someone didn’t have their nose stuck in a book or a notebook, it was Conversation City!

    Traveling by myself helped me get over my shyness, too. If I needed directions or information, I was the one who had to ask. And people always like someone who’s interested in their country or customs. It’s amazing what a well-placed question or two can lead to.

    As for the electronics – you’re clearly right that they can be a barrier. The very worst I ever heard about was the smart phone app that lets you see where you’re going while you’re texting or emailing, so you don’t bump into people. My gracious!

    • Traveling is a great way to meet interesting people. I’ve never traveled alone, which would very likely have forced me to interact with strangers in order to survive!

  5. No, I am not gregarious, either. But I did strike up a conversation with a woman in a shop while on vacation & learned quite a bit about her work, the building we were in, the place…out of character for someone who prefers to sit in corners with her book or notebook, but liberating. Hmmm…

  6. I’m a talker. It runs in my family. We accost people wherever we find them: in line at the grocery store, in a restaurant, while shopping, at an exercise class, etc. You can learn a lot from people, and a good conversation can chase away the boredom of waiting in a long line.

    • Often when I’m out shopping with my mom, if she’s waiting for me somewhere she’s in a conversation with another person. I don’t think she initiates them, but people seem to sense that she’s sympathetic and will start talking to her.

  7. I do, and I don’t. It depends on the vibe. The Bay sounds like a wonderful place… and it’s hard to tell what creates a certain type of chemistry among strangers and in the atmosphere in general. There must be something about Scott that contributes to that good vibe. When Shawn and I go on vacation (rare these days) we always make new friends. We might not ever talk to these people again, but for that moment in time, it’s like we’ve known them for years. I guess it proves kindred spirits are everywhere.

    • I think you’re right that Scott has something to do with the good vibe at the Bay Bar. On the occasions when we’ve gone there and he happened to be off, things just weren’t the same. Conversations occurred, but they were more lackluster. He gets people talking amongst themselves, and pretty soon we’re all kindred spirits, even if only for a few minutes!

  8. I love talking to strangers, but I’m not stupid about it! But it just seems if it works out right you sure can learn an awful lot — get good writing fodder, or just be plain friendly! (I confess, though, as I find myself having elevator conversations with strangers, I sometimes think I’m the crazy lady!. I think it’s easier if I’m with Rick, too. There’s sort of a safety in that.

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