Talking To Strangers Used To Terrify Me. Then I Took Up A Challenge.

© 2018, The Washington Post | Published: April 06, 2018 12:11 IST

The elevator doors are shutting, closing us off from the sun-drenched building foyer.

A hand thrusts through, sending the doors back open, and a breathless FedEx guy dashes in. There is a collective eye-roll as he wriggles in beside me, nervously mumbling, "Sorry, everyone . . ."

"So you should be!" I joke.

FedEx Guy looks surprised but then registers my smirk and chuckles along.

"I'll try better next time!" he play-acts back.

There is a small giggle from the rest of the elevator; I feel like taking a bow.

You see, I used to have a serious people problem. The mere thought of making a humorous quip in a tense public setting like this, quite frankly, terrified me. At least, until I took up a challenge about a year ago.

Said challenge was delivered to me while trying to resurrect my life, post-marriage breakdown. I had started watching the YouTube channel of dating coach Matthew Hussey because I found it comforting on lonely nights, when I would place the laptop on the side of the bed where my husband used to sleep.

A few videos in, I was hooked and signed up for Hussey's online program that proposed an experiment: Engage with more people each day. The premise was that it would build confidence and, ultimately, maybe even attract my perfect partner.

His theory was not just fluff talk - it was backed by science. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that talking to strangers can significantly boost your mood. Another study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, showed friendly people are generally rated as more physically attractive.

So, propelled by a determination to get out of the self-esteem rut in which my divorce had landed me, and perhaps find a soul mate, I decided to give it a try.

I started at my office, where I am an editor for a lifestyle website for women. I realized, rather embarrassingly, I knew the names of only a handful of the people there. In general, I avoided encounters with colleagues by taking my lunch back to my desk. On the first day of my confidence challenge, I plonked down with my sandwich in the staff break area.

Within seconds, a sheepish guy with the wide eyes of someone fresh out of college sat down across from me. It was obviously his first week - if not his first day - judging by his comically oversize business shirt, which still had some of the original creases from the packaging. This was my opportunity.

"I like your shirt," I mumbled, wishing I could swallow the words back with the bread.

He immediately laughed.

"Thanks! Don't tell anyone, but my mom bought it for me. I'm never letting her do my shopping again!" he replied, a smile spreading across his face.

Suddenly, we were conversing. I learned his name was Zac, and he was indeed fresh out of college and new to the company. Zac loved the troll doll collection on my desk. He had a Sri Lankan girlfriend he saw only sporadically, due to distance. I recommended a reasonably priced restaurant in the area to take her to when she next visited.

At the end of lunch, Zac stood up, and I suddenly noticed he was strikingly tall. I felt an urge to joke that he had be a good person to make friends with because I can never reach things on the high shelves in the office kitchen. I stifled it for fear of receiving a befuddled or insulted look.

"See you around. I'll try and wear a shirt that fits next time!" Zac said with a chuckle, heading back toward his desk.

I left the lunchroom feeling satisfyingly sprightly. Though Zac was not a romantic prospect (he was gushingly in love with his girlfriend and also way too young for me), the experience was uplifting.

On the subway ride home from work, a woman stood beside me readjusting her clothes as if painfully uncomfortable at the end of a miserable day.

"I like your dress," I said.

She did not hear. Spurred by the experience at work, I gave it another go.

"Your dress," I repeated. "It's really beautiful."

The woman looked up, stunned, and smiled.

"Oh, that's so kind of you to say. That's made my day, thank you!" she said and beamed.

Opening myself up felt good. I persisted. The next day at work, I bumped into Zac in the office kitchen. He was wearing an almost identical shirt to the previous day.

"Nice look!" I quipped.

"Thanks! Turns out she got me a whole set of them!" he joined in, casually plucking a tin of tuna from the high shelf above the kitchen counter.

That evening, I pushed myself a little further outside of my comfort zone and asked the woman who had been silently serving me at my local bodega for the past eight years what her name was.

"It's Maria. And, you know, I just realized I don't know yours, either," she said with a smile.

After that, Maria and I greeted each other by name every time I went to pick up milk, and I learned she, too, was newly single and in need of a friend to complain to about the dating scene. We met for coffee a week later.

Back at work, I delivered my tall joke to Zac. He laughed, and I suggested he be my "work husband" in light of his ability to reach things for me, to which he readily agreed - on the proviso I continue to offer him female insights to impress his girlfriend.

As the weeks passed, I found myself stepping up the challenge; asking more people around the office what their names were and striking up conversations everywhere I went. With each interaction I felt lighter, happier and more connected to the world. This was no longer about meeting a soul mate but about feeding my own soul.

Today, I greet everyone who works on my floor by name. It is almost laughable how easy it was to get to know each person; I often wonder how things would have been different had I started my experiment sooner. But there is something I now know for certain: A perfect mate is not easy to come by, but perfect potential friends are everywhere to be found. Although FedEx Guy, who I still sporadically ride the elevator with, disagrees.

"A young girl like you is far too hip to be my friend!" he says with a laugh, elbowing me in the ribs.

Then the elevator doors spring open, and I dash out.

"You're probably right, but I'll give you a free pass anyway!" I joke back.

He flashes me another appreciative smile as the doors close.

"See you next time!"

(Bokody is a journalist based in Sydney, and the global editor of SHESAID. She has an unhealthy obsession with men in glasses and an opinion on just about everything.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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