When I made a choice to acknowledge the people around me, even in a small way, my whole world changed from feeling isolated to being connected.
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I felt like I had every flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream lined up in front of me and no spoon to eat it with. That’s how I describe my first few months after moving to Chicago from Portland, Oregon, where I’d left behind my family and close friends for a place where I knew absolutely no one. It was the biggest city I’d ever lived in, with people everywhere. And yet, I felt incredibly lonely.
I used to head to a coffee shop down the street with my laptop, not to work on anything but to simply enjoy some social energy. At one point, I actually considered approaching people and saying “Hi, I’m Camille. I’m new here and don’t have any friends. Want to hang out? I’m not a weirdo, I promise! I just need some friends!”
Water, water everywhere – and not a drop to drink. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Marine
Even the happiest single people have moments of feeling isolated and alone. And if we live in a big city with no shortage of people, sometimes it feels worse — seeing all the opportunity around us and not knowing how to tap into it.
After a few months of my sad coffee shop routine, I finally decided enough was enough and vowed to try more natural (and less-desperate sounding) ways to connect with the people around me. And it all started by creating meaningful moments with strangers as I simply went about my day.
Humans are social creatures. We’re wired to bond with each other and form connections, which allowed our ancestors to evolve from solitary nomads into settled communities, better ensuring our survival. But these days, how do we find a balance between fulfilling our innate need for social engagement with still enjoying our freedom as an individual?
One way is to simply help someone out.
Like the time I was riding the L train in Chicago and glanced across the aisle to see a young man in his late teens seated with a small bouquet of roses with price tag showing.
At first I wasn’t sure how to call attention to the tag without potentially committing to a full-on conversation. I just wanted to let him know about it so I could go back to listening to Imagine Dragons on my iPhone. So, I decided I’d point it out as soon as one of us got ready to exit the train. My stop came first, and as I stood to leave I said, “Those are beautiful – did you know the price tag is still on?”
His initial reaction was confusion (“Why is this girl talking to me?”), but after he realized what I’d said — and that I wasn’t pressuring him to engage beyond that particular topic — he flashed a big smile and started removing the tag.
Nine words later, I walked off the train feeling a sense of both connection and accomplishment. The recipient of those roses never need know he got them on sale for $4.99.
Another way to form a quick but meaningful connection with someone you don’t know is to ask for help yourself. People tend to get more enjoyment from helping others than they do when receiving help themselves.
I unintentionally did this while making my way out to visit a friend in Boston. Landing at Logan airport after 10 p.m., I hopped on a westbound T train to meet her in Newton. As the stop was approaching, I gathered my things and stood next to the door waiting for it to open.
But when the train stopped, the door didn’t budge. I panicked. It was late at night, in the middle of nowhere, my phone battery was dying and my friend was waiting at a stop I could see, but couldn’t get to.
Suddenly, a man and a woman who’d been sitting near me saw my struggle with the door, leapt up, and immediately started trying to open other doors in the car for me. Together we scrambled, unfortunately to no avail. As the train started to pull away, I moved to the next car in hopes those doors would open, but not before sincerely thanking the kind strangers who’d tried to help me.
This simple moment of pitching in to help, which only last about 15 seconds, was such a warm welcome to a city I’d never been to before, and it was with people I didn’t know and would probably never see again. I could tell they’d enjoyed our little adventure just as much.
If asking for help or aiding a stranger in need doesn’t feel entirely comfortable for you, try asking a simple curiosity or follow-up question.
That could mean complimenting a woman’s necklace and discovering a shared love of vintage jewelry. Or asking what drink the man in line ahead of you at Starbucks is ordering and getting the same thing just to try something new. You never know when a simple compliment or question can lead to creating a meaningful moment.
One of my favorite examples of this was when I received an email from my building manager saying one of our long-term maintenance men was leaving for a new position. Minutes later I ran into the man in the hallway. This was a guy who’d fixed my leaky sink and winter-proofed my windows, yet we’d never had an actual conversation. So, I asked where his new position was taking him. That simple question led to a half-hour conversation about the importance of following your passion in life and the benefits of continually pushing past your comfort zone.
He told me all about his new position, which was further from his home, but came with a salary increase and more career advancement opportunity. I shared that I’d just quit my corporate job and was starting my own business, and how I felt nervous but also fulfilled and excited.
We ended up exchanging numbers, vowing to grab coffee soon, and I left the hallway feeling inspired and even more secure in my decision to go full time with my business. I’ve found that being around like-minded people tends to have that effect.
Simple actions like these allow you to strike that perfect balance of independence paired with feeling genuinely connected to others. And part of the fun with that is having no idea what a random chance encounter will lead to: a new friendship, a networking opportunity, a date, or simply a moment of meaningful connection with another human being that reminds you both that you’re never truly alone.
So the next time you’re feeling a little removed from the social scene, push yourself to get out of the house. Head to the grocery store, or go for a walk. Have a goal of smiling at five people before you get to the office, or make a rule that every time you get in an elevator with someone, you’ll ask how their day is going.
All it takes is some practice and a little courage to realize the world is filled with a lot of very nice people who are craving an authentic connection just as much as you are — and it can all start with just a few simple words.
Copyright © 2016 Camille Virginia/Singular Communications, LLC
Camille Virginia is an OFFline dating expert, giving singles who are burned out with online dating authentic alternatives to find their match in the real world. She’s creator of the course Secrets of Offline Dating, and you can get her free series 4 Key Ways to Get Him to Approach You (without saying a word) by clicking here, and learn easy tips to become instantly more open and approachable.