I am not particularly outgoing by nature, and technology has generally removed any need I might otherwise have had for talking to other people except as it pertains to my job or my family. A song from Sesame Street suggests that there are in fact people in my neighborhood, people that I meet each day, but I have found that this need not be the case. Who might I meet each day? A bank teller? Nope, online banking. A checkout clerk? Nope, the self-checkout lane. A gas station attendant? Nope, pay at the pump. Asking somebody the time? Nope, my cell phone. Small talk in a waiting room? Nope, my cell phone. Directions when I'm out of town? Nope, my cell phone. Friendly strangers while I'm out for a walk? Nope, their cell phone (and earbuds). Whew.
At certain points in my life I have made a conscious effort to engage others in conversation where normally I would remain silent. Actually, the first example that comes to mind is not so much about engaging in conversation as it is about opening myself up to conversation, which can be just as terrifying. When I left my high school and the classmates I had studied with for 13 years, I went to Bethel College, where I was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of strangers and barely knew anyone else. I decided that I would probably have a better experience if I met some people, and that probably most other people were not just going to come up and start talking to me. For these reasons I decided to say "Hi" to everyone I met on the sidewalks of Bethel's campus who wasn't already having a conversation. No "how are you" because I hate that most people don't want an answer (or don't give an answer), and no "Hi, my name is Peter" because that's weird and creepy. Just "Hi."
A lot of people said "Hi" back, and though I don't remember it leading to any particular conversations, it made me feel a lot less closed off than I would have felt sticking to my nature and silently walking (or rolling) down the sidewalk. I'm sure it allowed me to participate in later conversations that I would have otherwise not been part of, either because I recognized a person from having said "Hi" to them or maybe because they recognized me.
The second example I can think of is a few months ago when I was shopping at Meijer by myself. As I passed by the aisle with the snack crackers I saw a man put a box of orange cheese-flavored things in his and his wife's cart, and she said, "oh wait, do we want Cheese Nips or Cheez-its?" This struck me as a perfect example of the mundane conversations we all have all the time - things that really don't matter in the grand scheme of things yet they're still really important to us on a small scale - and I thought it was hilarious and awesome. The inside of me smiled when I felt a weird urge to ask them which they decided on. This is not me. But, I thought, if it made me smile then maybe it would make them smile too. Or maybe they would just think I was weird. Whether I like it or not, I care a lot about what strangers think of me. On the other hand, there's a good chance I'll never see them again. In the end, my curiosity overpowered my shyness and I turned the cart around and felt myself walking back an aisle to where the cracker discussion had taken place. I don't remember exactly how it played out, but I said something like, "Sorry, but I overheard the earth-shattering discussion happening and now I just have to know: Did you go with Cheese Nips or Cheez-its?" It was at this moment that I suddenly realized what was happening. I had just strolled into a stranger's life and asked them a very personal question about what kind of snack crackers they preferred. What was I doing? This is embarrassing and weird! Wait, I think they're laughing. Oh good, at least it was ha-ha weird and not call-the-police weird. It only took about half a second to think all of that so I just kept going. I peeked into their cart and observed, "ah, Cheese Nips, huh? Good choice. Well, have a nice night!" Freed from the situation I had put myself in I wheeled the cart around and walked, maybe a little faster than usual, back toward the front of the store past the tank full of lobsters who thankfully were unable to point and laugh at my fit of social ineptitude.
Still, it made me feel good to share my observation with someone else and it felt good that they thought it was funny too. I walked toward the self-checkout with a goofy smile on my face.