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When was the last time you talked to a stranger?

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“When was the last time you talked to a stranger?” Whenever I get this question, I always try my best to either recall the time when a stranger greeted me in the elevator, and merely returned the greeting, or cook up an excuse, “Oh, I prefer the stairs.”

Yes, I just find it hard to admit I don’t do it, so I avoided the question.

What’s worse, sometimes I don’t even return the courtesy to the friendly stranger. Sometimes, I walked into the elevator deep in thought or engrossed on my smartphone that when I realised my “elevator mate” greeted me 5 seconds ago, I find giving a lagged response would be awkward. So I decided to give no answer. It was “cooler” that way.

In fact, most of us are like that – are you? When was the last time you greeted a random person? Or when did you last greet someone you see every day while taking the public transport? Or at least, someone you bump into often enough to know each other’s existence but never acknowledged?

It could be a colleague you seldom interact with at work, but somehow, both of you cross paths at the pantry often. Or it could be that office worker whom you see at the bus stop at around the same time every day. Maybe even the security guard you meet when waiting for the lift every morning before work and evening after work.

It was just last weekend when Zhenwei, our recent guest on the podcast episode #10 of Anecdotes, asked Timothy and me, “When was the last time you talked to a stranger?” I could only lower my head in shame. Well, it’s something I’m learning, though, if that’s worth anything. But I digress.

Anyway, Zhenwei shared with us his experience at Nanyang Technological University, where he’s currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology. He stays at the school hall – synonymous to a school dormitory – so he meets different and new people almost every day. It’s something he likes doing as a social butterfly.

Zhenwei knows of an international student from Amsterdam who recently came to Singapore to pursue his Bachelor’s degree. One day, they crossed paths in the elevator.

The student (whom we’ll call Justin for simplicity and anonymity’s sake) greeted Zhenwei, to which the latter returned the courtesy. But Justin gave him a shocked and surprised look. Naturally, being the social butterfly Zhenwei is, he struck up a conversation.

The young Dutch told Zhenwei, “You’re the first person [at the university] who responded to me so far.” It turned out Justin tried greeting every student he met in the same elevator, but none of them replied him until he met Zhenwei. In fact, according to Justin, they gave him a look of “Are you crazy?”

From the conversation with Justin, Zhenwei realised how speaking to strangers is not much of a Singapore culture. It might even be not much of a norm anymore. Judging how many articles out there discussing the issue about how people glue their faces to smartphones in almost any social situations. It’s as if smartphones are the tool to avoid social awkwardness.

Trying to avoid the annoying sales people waiting at the subway station’s exit? Or survive through an unusually quiet family dinner with extended relatives you’ve never met in your life? Maybe it’s just standing and waiting for someone at the shopping centre’s atrium. Just look down at your phone, and you’ll be safe. But, is it really?

Zhenwei also shared how much he hates it when he asks what someone has been up to recently and he gets this reply, “Oh, it’s fine. Haven’t you seen my [insert social media platform]? I recently updated pictures.”

Zhenwei thinks directing someone to your social media updates is a huge conversation killer. It’s a real person who bothers to engage in a conversation with you about your life, for heaven’s sake. He is not alone. Timothy and I hate it when we’re on the receiving end too. But we were all guilty of it at some point in our lives. It’s always easier to communicate through a medium.

Over time, though, our communication capabilities deteriorate. Without a filter or barrier, we feel as though we’ve forgotten how to interact with another human being. It’s an oxymoron how some of us share our most private moments on such public social media platforms. Of course, some would play the “privacy settings” card.

But how many of us genuinely spend more time with people around us – people who matter to us, people whom we see on a regular basis – more often than our screens? Not many.

How can we fix this? We can start with ourselves. Start talking to the real human beings we see, meet and interact with every day. Chuck the smartphone aside while talking to another person. Do it not just because it’s respectful, do it because you want to be both physically and mentally present.

It’d be tough at first. But starting a conversation and making someone’s day can be easy. In fact, socially active kids are better than adults at it.

Don’t take my word for it, watch it yourself.

While you’re at it, you might want to listen to the full episode and read the show notes here or directly from the player below.

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