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How To Pick Up Strangers (aka How To Be As Awkward As Possible Around Immigrants)


A few years ago, Gabriella was playing on a playground, and I was sitting on a park bench because, ya know, I do not get involved in her play. Another woman was there, and we soon began chatting.

Our conversation quickly revealed that she was really kind, interesting, and smart. It was also obvious that she was new to the area, very lonely, and an immigrant.

My heart went out to her. Conversations I'd had with Billy over the years about how unwelcoming and unfriendly the US can be to newcomers made me want to hug her.

Later in the day, I was sharing with Billy about the encounter. His question: "Did you get her phone number?" And I was all um... no. To which he basically responded, "What is your deal?"

"I don't know. I'm not experienced at picking up other women at the playground."

Billy is convinced (using me as a one-person sample) that Americans are weird about making new friends with strangers. His experience is that when he meets folks from other countries they are much quicker to act like old friends, swap numbers, and get together with strangers.

I can't really argue with him. I wandered away from him in the Target check-out line once, returning only minutes later to find him and the Canadian girl in front of us chatting like long-lost cousins. They lamented the US's obsession with credit cards and commitment to poor healthcare. They laughed like BFFs while myself and the American boyfriend stood by quietly.

Fast forward to last week. A mother and her two children eagerly welcomed us into a Chick-fil-A, where they'd be waiting for other kids to play in the indoor playground. Gabriella was so distracted by the girl asking, "Are you finished?" we totally abandoned eating.

The kids were similar ages to our own. The mother lifted her son and Isaac up the giant stairs while the girls hid out and giggled at the top of the structure. I soon joined the mom and we chatted easily. I learned she was from Lebanon.

It's time to go, and I rush out to Billy. "Oh no," I whisper in a panic. "It's that moment. I feel like I should get her number, but it's so awkward."

"Do it," he instructed while wrestling Isaac's coat on. "The kids had a great time. She's from another country, she won't think it's weird."

"BUT I THINK IT'S WEIRD," I whisper-shout.

"Well," he said, "I absolutely cannot be the one to go back in there and ask for her number. That will be awkward. You must do this."  

So, since one of my New Year's Resolutions was to take social risks, I steeled myself and walked back into the isolation booth that is a Chick-fil-A playground. Literally, I opened with, "So do you all come here a lot?"

"Yes!" she told me with great enthusiasm.

So I went for it. "Well, let me get your number, and maybe we can get together again next we come."

And so, with zero trace of discomfort, she rattled off her number and told me to text her right away.

Here's my question: Am I just a complete weirdo about picking up strangers? Or is there truly cultural differences in the way we approach and include new people? I'd love to hear your thoughts. (Especially if they include the words "you are not crazy!")

4 comments

  1. Angela2:17 PM

    I don't think connecting with strangers is something most Americans do easily. What changed that for me was the desperation of being "new." When I moved across the country with 3 kids under age 5, I was the weirdo at the park chatting up any mom who would stand still long enough. It was massively uncomfortable & still isn't something that comes naturally, but I realized that with enough failures (aka, people smiling politely & then ignoring me) also came some great opportunities for engaging with interesting people. I don't know whether making those types of connections is more natural for other cultures or if immigrants just feel that desperation to connect that I felt...multiplied by about a million!

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  2. I agree with you. I think that the desire to connect can push us to overcome nervousness about approaching others. I actually love meeting new people because, like you said, they are so interesting and fun. Where I get awkward, for sure, is the number exchanging or follow up!

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  3. I exchange numbers with foreigners much easier. But I rarely strike up deep conversations with strangers who are from this country while I am out. I think it has to do with foreigners being more eager to make friends and I reach out more to those I can tell aren't from here. Magic formula ;)

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  4. Magic formula indeed! :)

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