When I first came to America, I always thought that Americans were so eloquent in their encounters with complete strangers. Making small talk on the subway about the weather, in the grocery store deliberating on the best laundry detergent, or in the doctor’s office exchanging vacation destinations.
I have had many of these experiences since I moved here in 2005. Most of the time the initiative came from the United States citizen and seldom have I found the motivation to address someone unfamiliar to me. And that makes totally sense being the true Dutchman that I am.
In the Netherlands we do not engage in frivolous conversations. What’s the point? You will probably never see the person again. Or they might think that you are a crazy person. The Dutch first want to find out which way the wind blows.
Not in America. America is the land of opportunity, and every conversation can lead to a possibility that you were not aware of before. For example, you might learn that your conversation partner is working for an airline company and can help you with discount tickets to Hawaii. Or she or he unwillingly gives you the winning numbers of the next Mega Million Lottery (be careful, there are a lot of scammers out there).
Now after nine and a half years here, I have found the value of small talk and exchanging dialogue with those unbeknownst to me. And it works! Not that I got any hot tip on where to buy deep discounted designer clothes. But it makes me feel good! Surprisingly most people appreciate it when you address them out of the blue. Not at 8AM in the morning though, when no one wants to be bothered on their way to work.
I did that once on a Monday, the start of the work week — bad decision. Me “I really like those shoes, where did you get those?” Moody morning person: “None of your fucking business.” End of conversation.
So, better to try in the afternoon or on the weekend. It only has to last a minute or two, but you can make someone’s day. It can start very simple with a compliment on a great outfit or a comment on another hot day ahead.
Here’s my afternoon attempt with a couple that looked Dutch to me:
Me: “Hey, do you happen to be from the Netherlands?”
Couple: “Yes, how did you know.”
Me: “Not sure, you looked Dutch to me, but if you ask, I would not know how to describe that.”
Couple: “Ah, that is interesting! … Do you live around here?”
Me: “Yes, I do, right here around the corner.”
Couple: “So are we! That’s strange, that we have never bumped into each other before.”
Me: “Yes, I’ve been living here for a number of years now and this is the first time I see other Dutch people in the neighborhood.”
Couple: “You’re in luck then. We are actually having a little get together with some friends this upcoming weekend; some of them are from the Netherlands too. Would you care to come by?”
Me: “Yes, I’d love to!”
It doesn’t cost anything either, which is particularly amazing in a city like New York. I feel good, because I made someone feel good about themselves. I think it requires a some level of self appreciation. If you already think that the world is against you, it might be harder to engage in appreciative inquiry with a stranger.
But that aside, the notion still stands. By starting a conversation with a stranger, you acknowledge her or his existence. On top of that, you show that the person is of such interest that it is worthwhile to enter in discourse. Hence, he or she feels valued and appreciated.
I have to say though that the picture I painted on Americans versus the Dutch, in regards to initiating small talk, is a bit more nuanced. There are many Dutch that will start a conversation and many Americans will only speak when spoken to (and some might not even respond at all).
So to all extravert Americans: keep doing what you do. To all introvert Americans (and Dutch people living in Brooklyn): Go out there and talk to someone! You’ll feel amazing!