Thursday, February 18, 2010

When in Your Life Were You Most Afraid to Talk to Strangers?

Yesterday, I did a workshop with some local teenage girls in an after school program. I asked them to take the social object challenge - to talk to a stranger, get two strangers talking to each other, and create an object to get strangers talking to each other without their intervention. We were in a busy downtown area of Santa Cruz with lots of people strolling and hanging out outside on a gorgeous day--prime "talk to strangers" material.

Before we got started, I asked them how they felt about talking to strangers. They exploded, speaking all in one voice: "I don't even like ordering food in a restaurant." "I ask my little brother to call for appointments so I don't have to." "I like it when people--even weird people--talk to me, but I never ever will be the one to approach a stranger." These girls made it clear that while most of them enjoy social encounters, they almost always want someone else to start them. And there were a few girls who wanted nothing to do with strangers at all.

Needless to say, this led to an interesting workshop. They were nervous but ready for the challenge, and when I explained the idea of social objects (external objects that can be the basis for conversation) they got pretty engaged in the activity. One pair of girls did a survey in a grocery store about whether "the grass is always greener on the other side." One pair started out with a "chicken and the egg" question, but then moved to something more interesting and subversive (a sign outside a pharmacy that recently was bought by CVS asking people which business they preferred). As one girl said, "when we had a mission and a sign, it was easier to talk to people."

After this was all over, we talked about the experience. While they had mostly developed performative approaches to the task, by the end, they were more interested in developing listening approaches - for example, constructing a "tell me a story" booth. And while most of them aren't likely to jump at the opportunity to talk to strangers in the near future, several commented that they'd like to try more "social engineering" experiments in their lives.

For me, the experience changed my perspective on what teens want from social environments and encounters. Frequently, when cultural professionals talk about making museums and libraries more open to young people, we focus on social events and on the idea that these are people who would really LIKE to interact with others in the cultural space. It's easy to forget that teens are most comfortable being social with those they already know, not people who are unknown to them. Online, see Danah Boyd's research for more on how teens use social networks as an extension of pre-existing relationships as opposed to using online environments to meet new folks.

But the experience also reminded me that with a game, a mission, or an external prompt, the same fearful kids can become engaged with strangers in enjoyable ways. And in this way, they're no different from many adults.

Or are they? When I talked with (adult) friends about the experience, some wondered if kids today are acculturated to be more afraid of strangers than kids were in generations past. I'm not so sure this is true. Until I was about ten, I was scared to ask for directions or talk to strangers in public. I don't think I was afraid of the strangers--I was afraid of exposing and embarrassing myself.

I can imagine two arguments for young people being more afraid of strangers than adults:
  1. This is a developmental thing. As you get older, you get more comfortable talking to strangers.
  2. This is a cultural thing. These girls grew up in the US in a post-9/11 world, in a culture of fear that is more powerful than the one I grew up in.
What's your experience? Has your attitude toward interacting with strangers changed during your life, and if so, when and why?

19 comments, add yours!:

CGonzalez said...

Hello! I found that travelling and being exposed to different cultures and languages was what really helped me get over shyness. When I returned from abroad I was less hesitant when approaching strangers, who now seemed much more familiar to me.

Anonymous said...

I was quite shy as a teenager. It was working in museums, wearing the uniform, being the face of an institution instead of having to represent myself alone which helped me become less shy. When I had some kind of position of authority, even if it just meant I was the girl in the red apron who could point the way to the bathrooms, that made it significantly easier to talk to strangers. (Sometimes when going into a daunting social situation even now I tell myself to put on my 'museum face.')

Bodhibadger said...

I was phenomenally shy as a child, intensely shy as a teenager, and uncomfortably shy as a young adult. Over time, constant public speaking and teaching in my professional career chipped away at this, but this really only affected my willingness to approach strangers in a safe, familiar setting (such as a conference.) The biggest breakthrough came from participating in one of Jane McGonical's games ("Top Secret Dance Off".) By donning a mask, and having an assignment, I was emboldened to approach (and dance with!) total strangers. And video tape it to boot. This has seems to have permanently reduced my "shy" factor to a significant degree. Thanks, Jane!

DianeZ said...

I became less afraid of strangers after I became a parent and I was forced to deal with strangers constantly as I advocated on behalf of my children.

Now you must conduct your workshop with teenage boys! I am sure you will see some gender-specific differences emerge.

Alli said...

What a though provoking post.

I am someone who is not comfortable taking to strangers or (often times) being talked to by strangers. Yet, give me an "excuse" such as a school assignment, a job related task, or any thing that answers the question "why are you talking to me," and I'm instantly put at ease. Maybe it's self-conciousness or a lack of purpose that makes me uncomfortable, but give me a affiliation to an organization, a survey, or expertise on a topic and I'm an instant extrovert.

Noémie said...

your post arrives at the good time!
yesterday was the first "facebook fans evening of Le musée des arts décoratifs de Paris" ( i was there because i'm working on a survey about the web strategy of the french national museums. I expected that people talked to each other like in the facebook page but not at all! adults and teenagers are shy even with a "fan facebook" sticker!

claire antrobus said...

i wasn't a shy kid but became accutely shy in my later teens - i had to change school at 16 and knew no-one and found that terrifying. that was being shy with other teens principally.

as for diane, having children in my early 30s made me less shy - not just because you have to advocate for their needs, but because kids are also the ultimate 'social objects' as they encourage and enable social interaction with all sorts of people that would otherwise never happen.

Krystallia Sakellariou said...

Hmm, this was ver interesting to read!I think it sounds like a great workshop and something I would like to do myself!

I think that I am myself sometimes more shy when it comes to talking to people I already know...However, I LOVE talking to strangers! I think I have ever since I was a teenager actually. back then me and my friends would walk up to people on the streets and just ask them silly questions, ( like: what time is it?-Eventhough we had a big watch visible on our arms..) and things like that. There is something very un-ritual like in a meeting with a stranger which I love..

I grow up on the country side in Sweden, in the outskirts of a village with 200 people. As soon as you would see a stranger you would always say hello and ask them where they were from. I guess this could be a reason for me still being excited by every new person that I meet, eventhough I today live in a city with almost 2 million people in Mexico...
I have also done this hobby into a couple of art project which are based on encounters with strangers.

One of the projects is based on the question What Would Your Dream Day Be Like? I ask strangres this question in every new city that I go to and record the answers..

I have some of the videos on Youtube if somebody would like to have a look:
as well as on my blog: where I plan to make a catalogue of more than hundreds of these videos..

I also just recently uploaded another project about shoes here:


Hope you don´t mind me adding these links here, but I thought they were so related to the topic that you where writing about!
Greetings from Mexiko and congratulations to a great blog! I am one of your subscribers!


Anonymous said...

As a later teenager - 15 through 18 - I hated talking to adult strangers. It was embarrassing, in the way things can only be embarrassing for a teenager.

I'm still not a fan, although these days I prefer it when I initiate the conversation. Talking to a stranger to find out a bus time? Fine. Being addressed by a random stranger? Creepy.

Part of my hesitancy, however, comes from the Stranger Danger that we were taught as kids in the 80s and 90s. A defined situation eases the Danger! response considerably.

Philippa said...

I'm quite embarrassed to admit this but I don't like randomly talking to strangers in a social setting (however no problem doing it in a work environment or in a parenting scenario). For example I will actively choose the computer checkout in the supermarket in order to avoid having to make polite conversation at the manned checkout.

Interestingly my eight year old daughter will talk to anyone, in fact regularly does while I'm backing away. It will be intriguing to see if this changes as she grows up.

Nina Simon said...

What a great project! Thanks so much for sharing it. "What is your dream day?" is a question that hits the core characteristics I see in great questions:
1. simple
2. personal
3. speculative
4. interesting to hear a stranger's response

I will add it to my never-ending list.

Krystallia Sakellariou said...

Hello Nina!
thank you so much for replying, and I am so happy to hear that you like my project! I have worked on it for almost 10 years now, on and off, and like you say, it is so simple but still so interesting to hear the answers that I myself never get tired of it...

I would love to intervew you about your Dream day as well at some point! Maybe if I come to california ( which is not impossible) or if you happen to be coming to Mexico in the future!

I also wanted to ask you one thing, did you ever teach a class in Sweden?At the Gothenburg university to a group of museum studies students???

I really like your blog and the approach that you have to museums. I both love and hate museums to be honest, I have worked in them for several years, always in the educational/public department which to me is the most exciting part. You work in the big gap between the public and the exhibitions that often exists and there are so many fun projects that you can do to change this!That is what keeps me still working there:-)

All the best from Mexico!


Alysia Caryl said...

First month in Paris, I lived there for a year and a half getting a degree in art history... simply amazing, but I was only 19 and simply not ready for all the newness and so many unknown people....great adventure that has lead me to be a college instructor in the arts and humanities, a speaker on art and new media, a museum educator in world class art and science centers, and a world traveler always curious about new cultures....

Aaron Goldblatt said...

It would be an interesting study to see if we do in fact live in a climate of higher fear today than in previous generations. During the cold war there were periods of almost daily warnings about the threat of nuclear attack. I have some memory of an article somewhere documenting the deeper psychological impact on the generation who came of age in the late 60s/early 70s.
There may also be some literature on the developmental issues facing teenagers (I suspect you are correct about that) and their reluctance to speak with strangers. I wonder if their reluctance is equal across demographics of strangers; more reluctant to speak with adults as opposed to other teens - and other such groupings?
The funny thing is that there is a phenomenon (at least in my very limited observations) among adults who interpret the shyness you report among teens as hostility in some form or another. I can imagine this would give teens even more reason to be reticent.
It is tough for us to talk with each other!

J Goreham-Penney said...

When I was a teenager, I was terrified of my peers and less so of (adult) strangers. My peers were cruel and critical, where adults were polite enough to not notice that I was a weird kid. I don't have a lot of energy in my daily life for general conversation with strangers, so thank god for the iPod- even if the battery's dead, all I have to do is put my headphones on and look at my iPod occasionally to get some peace and quiet ;) Technology is definitely changing the way we all communicate with strangers (I can't say that I know any of you people commenting on the blog from a hole in the ground, but here we are!). That said I've recently taken up Tarot cards as a hobby, and if I'm shuffling or studying my deck in 'the wild', then strangers want to talk to me about it and I don't mind it. I guess because we're discussing something particular, like the girls in Nina's post, I don't mind talking to strangers if there's this thing or topic specifically to discuss.

Nadja said...

I am not shy of talking with strangers at all. It's interesting how intimate the conversations can get with someone standing on a line or in a grocery store, and then, poof, it's over when the bus comes or your number is called! My father will talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime, I think I get it from him. I also grew up in NYC where we are on top of each other all the time, you can't avoid strangers, even if you are not talking to them you are breathing the same air, especially on the subway. My daughter, however, was a very shy little girl (she grew up in California). She would stand behind me if someone even looked at her. I saw her mustering up the courage over the the years, to ask a question and now, as an older teenager seems perfectly fine with talking with a stranger.

Meg Garey said...

I think it’s a developmental thing. When I was young I was painfully shy. I could never go anywhere without a parent or a sibling because I was too terrified to even go to the bathroom by myself because I might not know exactly where it was and need directions.

This continued until I was in sixth grade and got a job working at my Dad’s theater. It was impossible to be that shy because talking to people was my job. I had to take phone calls, return them, help people with directions, sell tickets, and answer all kinds of crazy questions (the kind only tourists ask). I even had to go out on the street (in 1880’s costuming) and hand people brochures while telling people about my Dad’s show. It was terrifying at first but soon I grew to love it. There’s just something exhilarating about interacting with new people and having them respond positively to you.

I think for most people, taking to strangers is a skill they have to learn and it probably does have a lot to do with the environment they’re in. Kids are taught from a young age never to talk to strangers and to be on their guard at every moment for kidnappers waiting to snatch them away. It’s a foreign thought to think that anyone who doesn’t know their parents is a good person. When they grow older though, they have to start doing things on their own and they are forced to push past that shyness and embarrassment to make new friends, get a job, and all the other little chores that come with being an adult.

This summer I will be interning with a museum in my hometown and my entire job will consist of talking to strangers and I can’t wait.

Anonymous said...

I am so passionate about being OPEN to those around me... that I am literally living my life Turning Strangers into Friends :) -Maybe one day we shall meet, too!

Ralex said...

I'm 23 and still nervous about talking to strangers. Being a journalist and going to therapy has helped me put myself out there more, but calling or approaching people for interviews makes me nervous. I find that once I speak with one or two people, I am usually comfortable talking to more for the rest of the day. I tend to experience over stimulation when I'm around a group of people. For example, if I attend a meeting or a protest, I feel like my senses are exploding with all the bodies and noises everywhere. I need to step back and look at people who appear open to talking. I don't know if that's social anxiety or something else.