Sonya Sorich: Talking to strangers

October 21, 2013 

Maybe I missed the childhood lesson about not talking to strangers.

That might explain my obsession with initiating conversations that other people might perceive as worst nightmares.

Exhibit A: I volunteered at a journalism conference in Atlanta last weekend. Part of my volunteer gig involved approaching conference attendees, the majority of whom I hadn't met, and encouraging them to vote on topics for the conference agenda.

I opted for my usual strategy: abandon common sense and jump in.

"Jumping in" came in the form of an unassuming conference guest playing with a piece of technology. I exhaled nervously. Then, with a simple "excuse me," I was in my element.

I'd experienced the process before.

In the early stages of my career, I made extra money by standing outside supermarkets and collecting signatures for a California government petition regarding term limits.

It was a dream job: approach someone whose hands are filled with groceries, succinctly summarize a fairly complex topic and expect your listener to drop everything and sign on the not-so-dotted line.

This was also the middle of the summer, which made the prospect of avoiding an air-conditioned car for a quasi-political conversation even more enticing.

Hopefully, you've picked up on my sarcasm.

Potential drawbacks aside, I had a soft spot in my heart for the petition-signing job, particularly because I enjoyed the uncertainty of predicting how my "excuse me" would be received.

The same satisfaction applied to my college job, a fundraising position that required me to call alums, exchange pleasantries and ask for money.

I got a slight rush off the fact that the moment dubbed "The Ask" could initiate everything from financial generosity to a 45-minute rant about the failings of the modern education system.

If that sounds slightly freakish, you're right. Here's something else that makes me a social anomaly: For much of my life, I was pretty shy.

I'm talking about the paralyzing kind of shyness -- the variety that makes somebody overtly avoid other classmates on the playground, or use a good novel as an excuse to decline an invitation. I tensed at the thought of surrounding myself with people.

So naturally, I became a journalist.

It sounds weird, but I somehow managed to acquire an alter ego when talking to strangers was part of my job.

Believe it or not, lots of reporters are naturally introverts.

Many of us have an internal "on" switch that helps us temporarily erase a sense of shyness to track down a phone number or intrepidly drive to an address for an interview with a stranger.

And if you're really lucky, you'll leave the interview with a realization greater than the story itself: knowledge that perhaps the notion of strangers is as dated as your formerly shy self.

Not bad for a measly "excuse me."

Sonya Sorich, reporter, can be reached at ssorich@ledger-enquirer.com or 706-571-8516.

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