Getting Over My Fear of Talking to Strangers

Here's a video that showed up in my newsfeed and was sent to me by a friend the day after we got back from Eilat--it fit really nicely into the theme of this point. It's almost like it was put in my path, specifically for me to watch and pull motivation from. Message received, thank you universe.  [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7dLU6fk9QY?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

Whenever I've told people that I can be shy, their response has been laughter. "You? Shy? That's a lie, Sejal." You can laugh all you want, but it's true. Sure, I can be outgoing and make people laugh and know a lot of people, but put me in a room where I know absolutely no one and I'm terrified. Give me one friend or familiar face, and that terror subsides significantly. But when it's just me, even if I look calm and cool on the outside, I'm a mess on the inside. I'm great when meeting someone who I'm somehow connected to, like a friend of a friend--in fact, I excel in those scenarios--but going up to a random stranger and striking up conversation terrifies me. (Yes, I've done it before, but you don't know the extensive pep talk that I've given myself before I even consider doing it.) So I've been faking it 'til I make it for year, but somehow Tyler picked up on this.

There I was, at 3 in the morning, at a nightclub in Eilat (click here to read up on our day leading up to the club), just awkwardly bobbing to house/techno music that I don't particularly care for, but enjoying the atmosphere and people-watching at hand. Ilya had decided that he wasn't up for the club and had taken a cab back to the rental car to sleep and Tyler was talking to a gal that he had just met. At some point, Tyler came up to me and asked me, "So Sejal, are you looking to make a connection here?" A connection? Here? At this club? Uh...no, not really. But he continued, "Not necessarily here, but I mean on this trip in general. I have yet to see you start a conversation with someone that you don't know." He was right--I couldn't argue. It was usually Tyler or Chad who started up conversations with the random people around us. I started to tell Tyler that I was just being low-key and that I'm shy and I'm not good at meeting random people, but he wasn't having it and stopped me mid-sentence. "That's bull. What are you afraid of? That someone won't talk to you? Big whoop. Rejection happens to everyone. I get rejected, too. No one likes it, but it's not a big deal. It's only a big deal if you let it be a big deal. You have nothing to lose. This is all a numbers game. For every 100 times I've started a conversation with someone, I might meet 1 really cool person, and who knows how many times it doesn't even get past the 'Hello' stage. You've got to just go for it. All it takes is a, 'Hello. Do you speak English?' Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. If they don't, you move on. If they do, you start chatting with them. Sometimes it's for a few minutes, sometimes it's longer. But that's all it is to it. You can totally do this."

I swear Tyler could make friends with a camel if he wanted to

He was right. I was letting the fear of rejection keep me from meeting new people. I love meeting new people, minus the meeting part if it means I have to start a conversation with someone I don't know. That part scares the crap out of me. That's the reason why I will rarely approach anyone but I'll happily engage in a conversation that someone starts with me. It's why I value creating rapport. It's why I'm pretty good about talking to someone through a screen (and even initiating the conversation there). It's why when I travel alone that I more often than not spend my time people-watching and enjoying my own company rather than having a conversation with someone else. It's not something I'm proud of and something that I desperately wish I was better at, but had always put off.

I have a few friends that are AMAZING at meeting new people. One of them literally lists 'making friends with strangers' as one of his favorite things to do. For example, he'll go to music festivals with his friends, will disappear for a few hours and return with a stack of stories about the randoms that he met. (I think he goes to the music festivals more for the people than for the music, to be honest.) Or he'll be at the airport bar, waiting for his flight, and by the time he's done with his beer, the couple that he sat next to and chatted with will have invited him to come visit. (I, on the other hand, would find myself engrossed in my Kindle, or whatever sports game is on the screen behind the bar, hoping that the person next to me would start a conversation because I don't have the guts to.) He doesn't necessarily stay connected but he's really good at talking to strangers and developing a bond, if even for a fleeting moment, with them. (I, on the other hand, am really good taking that rapport and transforming it into a longer term bond. Hmm, maybe him and I should consider becoming a tag team of sorts.) I've always been in awe of these friends, secretly (and not-so-secretly) envious of their confidence and at their ease of striking up conversations with strangers. What was their secret? It turns out, it was pretty simple: they just tried and they didn't let the fear of rejection come in the way.

Was it really that simple? Apparently. Even if it wasn't, Tyler was right--what did I have to lose? I could go up to someone, try starting a conversation and if we chatted, great! If we didn't, I could go back to the group of friends who I know already know me and love me. Tyler credits his brothers with helping him do this. More often than not, they'd challenge each other or pick out someone that they'd want the other to go approach. For a competitive bunch like them, this would work. (That might even work for someone like me--I'm usually up for a good dare or challenge.) I think the other thing that I do is I read into a situation too much. I'll look at body language and a group's vibe and find reasons why they wouldn't want to talk to me, ultimately talking myself out of something that I didn't even give a chance to begin with. I told myself that I would follow Tyler's advice and I would give it a try--but not in the environment that we were in. A late night at a club where you'd be yelling over the music and people weren't in a sober state? That was just stacking the odds against me. Fortunately before Tyler could pick a target for me to approach or dare me to talk to someone, we decided to leave. As I left the club, it wasn't the beats from the music that were reverberating in my head but rather the words from our conversation, stubbornly refusing to leave until I translated them into action.

Tyler's first Camel ride

I didn't have to wait too long. The next morning, Saturday, was our camel ride. The ride itself was pretty cool as it gave us a chance to see part of the desert from a different perspective. It was Tyler's first time riding a camel and when the kid's enthusiastic, it's hard not to jump on the bandwagon with him. According to the guys, the camel's stride created a motion for the rider that was similar to what I would experience on the boat once we finally set sail--good practice for the seas! (I can proudly say that I didn't get motion sick and quickly got used to it.) After a one-hour loop on the camel, we returned to the Camel Ranch where we were treated to some tea, freshly made pita and cheese. While we were waiting for the tea and food to be made, the group of 11 (plus a friend of the group who didn't go on the ride but set up shop to snap some photos), sat under a canopy, escaping the heat. I didn't quite know it yet, but my chance to demonstrate my newfound courage in talking to strangers was about to appear.

As soon as we found some shade, the guys stretched out, preparing themselves for a little nap, and I found myself 'on my own' with three strangers (who all knew each other) on my left. Here you go, Sejal. This is your chance to strike up a conversation. And if it doesn't go well, you can eat your pita and drink your tea, and you'll never see these people again. You can do this. So I opened with, "Was this your first camel ride?" to the pair of women who had been on the ride with us. (The third person in their party was a friend who was snapping photos.) Thankfully, I was greeted with a warm smile and, "Yes, it was. It was on my bucket list."

Did she say bucket list? I took that as a sign--I'm all about bucket lists! And the conversation continued. We started talking about where we were all from (they were all from Arjeplog, Sweden, though the gentleman split his time between Sweden and Eilat), what we were doing in Israel (the ladies were visiting and they were staying with him and his wife), what we thought of Israel so far (unanimously agreed that the water was amazingly clear in Eilat and that we were having a great time and liked the country, especially the food!), and so on and so forth. To be honest, we had gotten so engrossed in the conversation that it was at least 30 minutes before we made proper introductions. Lotta and Jenny were business partners who owned a newspaper in Arjeplog--they did everything for the paper from writing, publishing, distributing, etc. This was their first time leaving their families (Jenny has two children, Lotta has four) for an extended amount of time to go travel, a test of sorts, you could say. Given that the newspaper comes out once a month and it takes about a week to pull it together, a 2 week vacation seemed doable. (Bonus: They're going to write about their travels in the newspaper so they snapped a few pictures of us to include. Maybe I'll be famous in Sweden?! ;-))They bought the newspaper a year or so ago from Johan, who has a house in Arjeplog (the office for the newspaper is located in his house), but comes to Eilat 2-3 times a year for 2-3 months at a time for the past 20 years with his wife, Illona. Johan is a photographer and has a fishing business back in Sweden, which is pretty rad in itself. But the coolest thing about Johan--he drives a Vespa with the license plate "Johan". Bad ass.

Good conversation, good food, good times

As we got to know our new friends, the more and more intrigued we became with them and they became with us. I was fascinated by Sweden and the municipality that they lived in. Located close to the Arctic Circle, the ladies were joking that when they were leaving, their neighbors were starting to ride their snowmobiles in bikinis. Yes, snowmobiles in bikinis. When I asked what the temperature was, they replied, "A warm 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit)". Say what?! As we drank our tea and ate our pita, they shared more about this wonderful community of 3000 (I think I have more Facebook friends than that): everyone knows your name, you can travel by snowmobile, you can see the Northern Lights fairly regularly (seeing them is on my bucket list!), you go through days with 24 hours of sunlight and days with 24 hours of darkness, you have thousands of lakes at your fingertips to explore (you can fish, you can swim if you want to brave the cold waters and you can drink the water from any of them), you could ride a dogsled...the list went on, convincing me to add it to my list of future travels. In turn, we (mostly me since Ilya was napping and Tyler was feeling a little hungover), told them about our upcoming sail, how I ended up joining the guys, life on the boat and what we needed to do before we could sail. As we talked about our lives, I learned that Jenny had lived in Illinois for a year as an au pair (just the other day I was doing research on this!), that Johan was doing a documentary on the ladies for a Swedish TV station and that Lotta had accomplished something else on her bucket list just the day before--snorkeling. Before we knew it, the tea was gone, the pita and cheese had found a home in our bellies and we were the last ones in the tent as the rest of the group had taken off. As we started to part ways, along with contact information, we traded invitations with our new friends to come visit us in our respective cities/countries. This right here, meeting awesome people, is one of the best parts about traveling. 

The view from Johan and Illona's apartment. From L-R: Johan, Tyler, Lotta and myself. To our right is Johan's workshop where he does his woodworking.

But our farewells were short lived. When we heard that they were going to call a taxi to take them back to Johan's home, we offered to drive them back in our car, which lead to an invitation to come up and take in the incredible view from Johan's terrace. As soon as we entered Johan's home (and especially after we met his wife, Illona), I confirmed what my intuition had already told me: we had met some really awesome people. As soon as you walk into their apartment, you notice the graffiti by the entranceway. All of the scribbling on the wall are messages and pictures from visitors who have come to visit the couple in their home in Eilat. What an incredible idea! Totally something I would want to do. Illona, like her husband and their friends, was a beautiful spirit who didn't bat an eye at the three strangers who walked into her home and welcomed us with a warm smile and open heart. As you walk around the apartment, you see proof of why this is a couple who truly loves life and have found a way to explore the world and connect with its people. Pictures from their travels, hanging souvenirs from past adventures, photos of their family, artwork from around the world--yes, they knew how to live. After a refreshing drink of juice, a group of us made our way to the terrace where we took in the most incredible view, complete with desert mountains, golden beaches and glimpses of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Before we bid them goodbye, again, they invited us to join them that evening at the Dolphin Reef that we had attempted to visit the day before. While the dolphin swimming section would be closed, the Dolphin Reef (which Illona and Johan are members of), was having a special party in the relaxation pools. There were three pools (one with fresh water, one with ocean water, and a special salt pool that mimicked the Dead Sea), that you could go into and just float and relax as they played some calming music, with the beverage of your choice. Though our original plan was to drive back that afternoon, we were intrigued by the pools and further more interested in spending time with our new friends. Plus, there's something to be said about spontaneous plans, right? We graciously accepted their invitation and said our farewells, with promises of seeing each other again that evening.

From a conversation in a nightclub to newfound friends from a camel ride, I think this was the universe showing me how to overcome one of my fears and what beautiful things could come about as a result. Lesson learned. If you're like me and get shy around strangers--I feel your pain, I really do, but we can do better. I'm not saying that you're going to become a charismatic people person overnight--that's not for everyone. What I am saying is that you have the ability to do better, if you want to. Don't let fear, whatever kind of fear it might be, hold you back from becoming the person you want to become. Suck it up and just do it. And if it doesn't work out, I'll be waiting here for you, reminding you of how awesome you are. As for me, I'm really glad that Tyler called me out and gave me the push to just approach people. Ever since Eilat, I've noticed that I've been more open to striking up conversation and less afraid of being rejected. The real test will be seeing if I keep it up. I truly hope I do.

Cause for Celebration

"Eilat" on My Mind