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Debbie Duncan: Talking to Strangers

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In the COVID era talking to strangers has become rare because being cooped up means there aren’t many strangers to talk to. Debbie Duncan says that should change.

One toasty morning a few months ago I went to the market looking for ingredients to whip up one of my favorite hot-weather dishes; a feta, mint, and olive oil spread for gluten-free toast. I found feta, but where was the mint? I wondered aloud to my husband. “I know,” replied a woman nearby. “What are you making?” I was delighted to tell her about this simple spread we had learned about from Gus, the owner of a Greek restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village, and share with her Gus’s non-recipe recipe.

I left the market happy and with my mint, realizing right away how much I had missed talking with strangers in a year-plus of living through a pandemic. I hadn’t even tried since early on, when a woman in a different market shouted, “Get six feet away from me!” as I came around the corner of an aisle. I got it. In those dark pre-mask, pre-vaccine days, I was a stranger who could be carrying a deadly virus.

But now most shoppers in the Bay Area have been vaccinated, and masks are the social norm. Conversations have resumed in lines at farmers markets. When I walk my dog in the neighborhood, I no longer have to do the COVID shuffle to keep a safe physical distance from others in our path. I can stop to let strangers pet her. That makes everyone happy.

Social science research confirms that talking to strangers enhances mood, and makes us more empathetic. People often underestimate how rewarding talking to a stranger can be. Yes, it may push us out of our comfort zone, but that’s a good thing for our mental health and well-being. And as I can see from those who ask how old my puppy-like mini Aussie is, it’s also good for the people we talk with.
One-time strangers may even become friends. I met my pal Firoozeh at the San Jose airport at 6:00 one morning nearly 20 years ago, when my mom and I were sent to the wrong gate. What a fortunate turn!

So go ahead: reach out and talk to a stranger today. I think you’ll be glad you did.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Debbie Duncan writes children’s books from her home on the Peninsula.


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