Stranger Danger & Random Encounters


Confession: I am a recovering shy person.

Now a “high-functioning introvert,” as I like to say, I have (kind of) figured out how to meet people and not feel terrified.

But my skills are about to be tested in a new home and city.

First off, let’s talk about the difference between shy and introverted. People get this wrong a lot. Shy is someone who appears to keep mostly to themselves, isn’t super comfortable around people, tends toward awkwardness in social interactions. They may have fear and anxiety about certain social situations.

Introverted people might appear shy, or they might appear at ease and outgoing. But they definitely get their energy or their recharge from being alone.

Much of the world is not set up for introverts. All those modern open office plans with everyone sitting working side by side? Truly the worst way for introverts to work.

As a teacher, anyone watching me would have said I was pretty outgoing. I was animated with the kids, learned all their names in a day or two, and mostly projected a lot of energy and enthusiasm in front of my classes. This wasn’t necessarily awkward for me. I enjoyed it and was good at it. It’s just… it also exhausted me, and when I wasn’t with my classes, I wanted desperately to be in a quiet room with no people.

For years when I was younger, I was truly shy. I didn’t really talk to strangers. I sat in study hall for an entire semester and never spoke to the cute boy next to me, who I actually knew from orchestra. If you put me in a room full of people I didn’t know, the discomfort actually amounted to minor terror.

I credit theatre for teaching me how to be outgoing. I found a platform where I could express my voice, I found a tribe, I found a place to grow my confidence. In a funny irony that I know others have experienced, despite the fact that I was shy and introverted, I was at home on stage performing.

Somewhere along the way, I learned to be comfortable in an outgoing persona. I absolutely think for me this was a skill to learn — how to talk to strangers, how to ask questions, how to smile and be warm and authentically open. How to be comfortable in my own skin.

I am still very much an introvert. I really like - no, need - time alone in silence with my own company. But the thing about shyness is, it can keep you isolated. I suppose introversion can too if you take it to an extreme. I do have to be mindful about getting out and engaging. But learning those outgoing skills has opened doors to connections that never would have been possible before.

Case in point: on my cross-country drive, I stopped for a day of rest in Santa Fe. After finding a place to eat lunch on my phone, I was wandering around looking for how to get there. I walked in a shop. Shy Jessica would have maybe said hello, but nothing more. Jessica with the Outgoing Skills paused to talk to the woman working there, asking some questions, telling her I was visiting while moving cross-country, asking for the direction of the restaurant.

When I finally moseyed up to my tucked-away dining spot, a woman was getting out of a car, looking around, clearly also looking for the unmarked door. I laughed and remarked something about it being impossible to find. She walked in behind me.

As I was about to ask for a table for one, I turned, realizing she was likely also dining alone, and asked if she wanted to sit together. That turned into a delightful hour+ conversation with a sprightly and colorful dining companion. We discovered many things in common — a love for the fashion industry, an obsession with the Cambridge restaurant Oleana, solo cross-country moves, and a love of travel. It was delightful. We exchanged information at the end of our lunch.

Things like this would never happen if I stayed shy and silent. Stranger danger, in this case, will keep you safe, but it will also keep you alone.

Some of my random encounters have turned into fascinating connections, helpful networking, or new friends. Here is what I’ve learned: Don’t be afraid to initiate conversation. Learn how to ask questions. Being interested makes you interesting. Discover a love for people’s stories. Everyone has a story.

I am in my second week in a new city. Much of my stuff is still in boxes. But I know I will need to call on my hard-won outgoing skills to establish a new network. Because it still doesn’t just flow completely naturally, I made a list of strategies: Dance classes. Transcendental Meditation centers. The Buddhist center near me. Choir? Hiking meetups? Volunteering at an animal shelter? Wellness events? Other bloggers?

True introverts, raise your hands! We may be a misunderstood breed, but we can be warm and well-adjusted. I feel as though I am living proof that you can go from shy to outgoing. Do you have Shy Person Stranger Danger? Have you learned to come out of your shell? Do you have an amazing story of overcoming shyness and a connection that followed? As always, share your stories here.

Image: Pop Shop 1 (Best Buddies), 1987 by Keith Haring