To be honest, the thought of talking to strangers gave me a lot of anxiety. I did go through a period when I would smile and even say hi to everyone I passed on my frequent runs… but that was about three or four years ago.
I’ve been living in downtown Chicago for about five years. I’ve often said – and I always have this weird nagging feeling – that living down here has kind of, maybe, sucked out a part of my soul. I absolutely LOVE Chicago – don’t get me wrong. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world (I might be biased). But I feel like I’ve become jaded.
That is partially to blame, I think, because you never know what you’ll encounter down here. Mentally-elsewhere people, creeps, criminals, thieves – I’ve become super hyperaware of my surroundings.
How can I not? The media is constantly painting a picture of violence. I don’t even watch the news anymore. I haven’t, really, since I left my childhood home and it was on in the background. (I’m a journalism major who doesn’t watch the news – imagine that!) This reminder of violence gets picked up and dramatized and churned out over and over again.
So, when I was proposed with the task of saying hi to every stranger for two weeks, my first instinct was to ignore it. But then I thought, what if I could slowly try to grow back a part of what I feel like I may have lost in the city? So I agreed on two weeks of giving it my best shot. Here’s a summary of my experience.
It was Tuesday. I was in a particularly good mood. The day was almost over, and it was time for a 3:30 p.m. snack. So I grabbed only my credit card and walked next door to 7-Eleven. I saw a man standing outside in gray sweatpants and a stained sweatshirt with a Styrofoam cup, not really asking people for anything but just holding out the cup.
Something about seeing this spurred me into action and I said to him, “Can I get you something? Maybe like…a granola bar?
He replied, “Sure…and maybe a pop, or somethin’…”
I laughed and asked him what kind.
“Maybe a Pepsi, or somethin’…” A big grin spread across his face.
After we settled on the flavor chocolate chip, I ran inside and grabbed him two granola bars (with fiber, because healthy) and a regular old Pepsi. I walked out with my Cheez-It bag and Pocky Sticks in hand, and gave the man his items. He was so appreciative. He thanked me, and I felt so good.
After the encounter, I thought to myself, “That wasn’t so bad. Today’s gonna be the day I start this two-week experiment.”
Aside from the occasional dog walker or gym janitor, I don’t typically see too much of anyone out and about to exchange hellos with. Except when I hit the park after a longggg meeting for a quick break to read an excerpt of Thrive by Arianna Huffington (a book that ironically focuses a lot on unplugging and connecting on a human level).
There was a seat on a park bench next to a young man who was intently looking at his phone. I totally choked. It was too awkward. So, I chalked this one up to a loss. After he got up – about five minutes after I sat down – I buried my nose in my book.
I’d try again tomorrow.
A Few Days Later
By this point, pretty much the only people I saw who weren’t looking at their phones or at the ground were those walking their dogs in the morning. I offered some timid hellos and got a few mechanical nods (more like slight inclines of the head, really) and an occasional, quiet “Hi.”
Though I was feeling a bit disheartened, both at my lack of courage and the lack of people actually interacting with the world around them, I kept trying my best. That day, I decided my next step – rather than being so hard on myself for not meeting the objective – would be to smile at everyone I passed. So I did that. Baby steps!
The next day, I walked past a construction worker on my way to work and said a quick “Morning!” Despite looking a little surprised, he automatically said it back. As we passed each other, I noticed him continually looking back at me, like he was pretty sure I was an alien. On the rest of my way to work, I greeted a dog walker who smiled, and a random businessman who gave a half smile along with a very polite, very mechanic “Morning”. I also smiled at a few more people.
The Rainy Day
It’s sad to say, but a lot of my mood in the morning is influenced by the weather. I am extremely lucky that I get to walk to work. (I feel like a lazy sloth if I even so much as think about taking an Uber!) But I also am at the mercy of the forecast. If it’s humid, I cover my hair, walk quickly and try not to sweat too much.
This particular morning? Torrential. Downpour. Which didn’t even start until I was partially on my way, too late to change or grab a coat with a hood. I had an umbrella, but with the jungley humidity, it was more like a greenhouse than a useful cover. I’m embarrassed to say that I sullenly half walked, half involuntarily trotted to the office with my head down and a probably not very nice look on my face. And I definitely didn’t say hi to anyone.
A Few Days Later
As I neared the end of this experimental period, I felt a mix of dread and hopeful optimism about completing the challenge (as I had come to view it). On this particular day, about a day or two shy of the deadline I had given myself, I was motivated by the idea of racking up just a few more interactions.
I ended up with three!
One older gentleman merely nodded politely. At a crosswalk, on my way back to the office from lunch, I said hello to one of two women waiting to make their way across the street (I had decided proximity mattered in my interactions, at least to make it a little less awkward, so I focused on the woman closest to me.) She looked around in such surprise that you’d have thought the lamp post had spoken to her. After crossing the street slightly more quickly than I had anticipated, I tried one more time with another gentleman walking toward me. I scored an awkward smile.
So what did I learn through this whole experiment? A lot of things, about myself especially. That I have somehow developed a slight anxiety of talking to strangers. But also that I am frustrated by the lack of human interaction going on around me in the city. That I am disappointed by the speed of busyness in which we live, and am worried about interacting with the unknown in a big city. And I learned that people always have somewhere to be.
One thing I discovered that I am grateful for is that in developing a better sense of awareness of my emotions through meditation, I have become more aware of my surroundings and desire to interact with the world around me. I now make a conscious effort to put my phone away in my bag and simply just walk with my head up, eyes open, taking in the sights and sounds passing by. And I have found that connecting with people on a more intimate level (like friends and family) is easier than it used to be.
I’m not sure I can find it within myself to say hello to every stranger moving forward – especially living in the heart of downtown Chicago – but I do know I am more likely to smile at everyone more frequently than I ever would have before, and that I plan to make a more conscious effort at being human.