By Nancy Marshall, The PR Maven®

Despite What You Learned Growing Up, It's A Good Thing To Talk To Strangers

Growing up, you may have been told to not talk to strangers, but it’s one of the most important social components of business. Beyond business, speaking with strangers is one of the most important aspects of human interaction.

My two sons (both Gen Xers) often tell me that I embarrass them by talking to strangers. They want to fade into the woodwork in line at the grocery store or at a restaurant, whereas I relish opportunities to strike up a conversation.

Why do I do it? Why do I annoy them (unintentionally)? Because talking to someone you don’t know can open up new horizons — horizons you could never even imagine. Let’s break it down.

First of all, you never know who “that person” is sitting on the next stool at the diner. I’ve met people from foreign countries, prospective clients and lifelong friends by striking up that conversation. You never know: You may be sitting next to a Fortune 500 CEO, a professional athlete or your next boyfriend or girlfriend. Engage them.

By engaging with them, you may learn something new. By listening to other people’s experiences — especially those who fall outside your traditional social circle — you can learn about a person’s religion, their educational background or their favorite pastime. You can even get into philosophy or politics, learning from the “other side” (as long as you both keep it civil).

Talking to strangers is an integral part of networking, and networking is a key component of branding. By speaking with strangers, you can grow your personal and professional network and build your brand by extension. In my book, Grow Your Audience, Grow Your Brand, I write about the value of cultivating a large network of people who know you and what you do. Whether it’s a personal brand or a corporate one, broadening your network helps create brand ambassadors or people who could refer you or endorse you for a job, a new client or even a new friend.

Speaking of friends, talking to strangers can make you new friends. Think about it: All of your friends are people whom you didn’t originally know — they were strangers at first. Having friends from different places, backgrounds and professions is an ideal way to expand your horizons. It enriches your life. I repeat: It enriches your life.

Talking to strangers can bring you immense joy. In fact, studies have shown that speaking with strangers can yield mental and physical benefits, boosting individual well-being. For example, there’s a young man at the grocery store where I shop, and we always exchange greetings when we see each other. It makes me feel better about shopping there and it brightens my day. It seems to brighten his, too.

Talking to strangers can fill the needs of extroverts and allow introverts to come out of their shells. If you want to improve your socializing (yes, it’s a skill), strangers present an opportunity to practice. Even if it’s just “small talk,” an exchange of two or three pleasantries gives you a deeper connection than floating through life on your own.

Stay humble, speak to strangers. By talking to one, you will realize that everyone has a different goal in life. You might even bump into someone who’s less fortunate than you, putting your own daily struggles into perspective. Talking to strangers teaches you that, as much as humans around the world are alike, we’re all very different. We all possess different advantages and disadvantages. Everyone has a story, and it’s worth listening to it.

In today’s day and age, talking to strangers is often perceived as “weird” or “awkward.” But it doesn’t have to be. As long as you’re respectful, it can lay the foundation for a more complete social life.

Yes, talking to strangers may win you a new client or a new customer. It may improve your financial situation down the road. But leaving your comfort zone (or staying in it, in my case) translates to much, much more than money. It’s essentially life itself, exposing you to new perspectives and experiences that make life worth living.

Don’t be afraid. Don’t feel weird or awkward. Talking to strangers is one of life’s great beauties.

This article originally appeared on the Forbes Agency Council CommunityVoice in September 2021.