“Hi, friends, how you doin’?”
I utter these words dozens, if not hundreds, of times a night. Mostly to people I’ve never seen before and may very well never see again. But I always do it intentionally — and sincerely. Asking this is the perfect way to set the tone for how I’d like people to feel when they sit down at my bar: Welcome, and among friends.
Which is exactly why people go to bars.
If all you wanted to do was pound some drinks, you could comfortably (and quite more affordably) do so in the privacy of your own home. But in a bar, even if you go there solo, you’re never really drinking alone. At the very least someone like me, your bartender, is there to chat with from time to time.
But, more often than not, the people who arrive at my bar alone end up deep in conversation with the people next to them, be it over a sports game (if said bar has a television), over the latest dumpster fire of a breaking news alert, over the beer selection, the weather… the list is long and varied.
And this isn’t just small talk.
I’ve seen genuine friendships, business partnerships, potential romantic interests all forged while I’m at work (which is a large part of why I love the service industry so much).
Talking to strangers can be not only worthwhile but also downright enjoyable, even when we have friends just a few key taps away. It might even allow you to make a meaningful connection.
It’s not that our parents were wrong telling us to not talk to strangers as children, but for everyone old enough to know the difference between a potential conversationalist and a possible serial killer, talking to strangers is pretty free of risk.
What’s the worst that can happen? Your interest in starting a conversation is one-sided? Your attempts are rebuffed? There’s an awkward moment? You realize that, regardless of who initiated contact, you don’t actually want to talk to this person? That’s pretty much it. There are no expectations with strangers; there can’t be, you don’t know each other, you owe each other nothing.
And yet, you’d be pleasantly surprised at how many people are ready and willing to engage.
Alright, so this is where I get to throw down boilerplate rules of engagement, particularly when it comes to men approaching women: Read the room, folks. This piece is not a How To Get Strangers to Talk To You guide. That would be creepy and weird.
The point here is to explain how interactions with strangers can be truly meaningful. They can be! It’s awesome! Unfortunately, some guy out there reading this is going to say See, catcalling/talking to women who show no interest in being approached by a strange man is totally fine. (No, no, no, Trevor; that is never okay.)
One of my favorite examples, of how simple — and rewarding — talking to a stranger can be, is during the women’s World Cup championship game last year. I was in a bar in Portland, Oregon, at 7 a.m. with nearly a hundred other people, none of whom I knew. Somewhere in the last 20 minutes of the second half, the bar’s internet went down and we lost the projection of the game.
Chaos ensued. Someone behind me cried. But then, in pockets around the sea of people frantically cursing technology, people started pulling up the game on their phones.
A woman sitting in front of me had hers out and without even thinking I leaned over and said, “I’m so sorry, can I watch with you?” She turned around and said, “Of course!” When she looked around at how many people were straining their eyes, she started narrating what was happening for those too far away to see the tiny screen.
The internet clicked back on a few minutes later, but everyone in our corner of the room were fast friends for the rest of the game.
If Tinder and its band of merry swipesters were the only available examples available you could certainly argue that no, no, talking to strangers is no way to establish a meaningful connection. As someone who has been on — not to mention witnessed secondhand — their fair share of Tinder dates, believe me when I say, I get it.
First dates with a stranger you met on the internet often fail to build a connection because that’s what at least one party is hoping to get out of it (same can be said of hitting on someone in a bar). Is this working? Do I like them? Do I want to see what they look like naked? All of these questions have bounced through my head when I’ve been on a Tinder date and I can’t be alone in that.
There are, however — at least if you’re truly earnest about simply wanting to have a conversation and aren’t hoping for a phone number, or a free drink or, I don’t know, a favor of some sort — zero strings attached to engaging a stranger.
Once you both leave the bar/the train/the cafe/the line for the bathroom, you needn’t ever see each other again. And that’s okay. In fact, the transient nature of the moment might just be what made your connection meaningful: it was unnecessary, and therefore a pleasant surprise.
The #MeToo movement went viral, into the corners of nearly every industry, and has touched the lives of women worldwide for two very specific reasons:
- Sexism, misogyny, and rape culture are deeply entrenched features of society.
- The incredible power of the message embodied in those two words: Me too.
They tell the speaker, in whatever context, that they are not alone, that someone else understands what they’re saying and feeling, and who doesn’t want to hear that?
We expect our friends and family to, at the very least, sympathize with our daily grievances — empathy would be nice but I’ll take what I can get — but to hear a stranger laugh at your story, or to look aghast on your behalf? That, my friends, is worth so much more than racking up likes on Instagram.
When Facebook first launched (yep, I remember when Facebook first launched) I remember wondering if it’s popularity had manufactured our desire to share our random thoughts, photos, and comments with a virtual audience, or if the platform was so popular because it tapped into a natural desire to do so and simply gave us a space to share.
When I think about that now, whether Facebook was the chicken or the egg, if you will, in that relationship, the answer is obvious: Humans are hardwired to tell stories. That need to share, that omg you guys you have to see/hear this; those group texts, the comments, the likes — it’s part of what makes us human.
Technology has given us a way to talk to strangers from a distance, and while it feels good to see those thumbs up next to your posts and pictures, nothing beats the rush of making a connection IRL. I might get paid to talk to strangers, but I can’t think of a better way to make a living.
Haley Hamilton is a Boston-based bartender and freelance writer. She writes about booze, bars, drinking culture, and Millennial angst. Her writing appears in Eater, Bustle, PUNCH, and MELMagazine. You can find her infrequent retweets and musings on Twitter.