A piece of advice I heard upon moving to Washington DC was, “Don’t engage with the crazy.” Mostly this advice was about staying safe on my favorite form of transportation – the metro – being that I was a naive new transplant. It is the basic principle many children are taught which is not to talk to strangers. As a petite female in the city commuting alone, it’s fairly good advice to stay safe. Unfortunately, this advice has extended itself into the workplace. And I don’t just mean for myself. Seldom do we connect with random people we come across in the hallways, elevators, or even the lunch line.

In Kio Stark’s TEDTalk, she calls this civil inattention. It’s our conscious effort to acknowledge people but give them space. 

“When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life and theirs. You’re making unexpected connections. If you don’t talk to strangers, you’re missing out on all of that.” – Kio Stark

So I ask you – why don’t we talk to the strangers at work? Why don’t we connect with each other more? What unexpected connections are we missing through civil inattention?

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Let’s throw off our propensity to maintain a stranger-danger mentality or civil inattention. Instead, I challenge you to connect with those you encounter in the hallways, elevators, and lunch lines.

Kio offered three tips for how we connect with ‘strangers’:

  1. Make eye contact and smile. I can imagine using this one in passing people in the hallways. Instead of looking down at the floor or your blackberry when passing someone you’ve not spoken to before, go ahead and maintain eye connect and smile. My guess is that most will return the smile. Random smiles like that tend to be contagious. Plus, after just a couple smiles in the hallway you’ll start having a positive association with the person. And, it will open the door to Kio’s second tip.
  2. Triangulate yourself, the other person, and a innocuous third thing. This could be something like commenting to someone about how slow the elevator always feels. Or, mentioning how you’ve never seen the lunch line this long before. Sure, the other person may uncomfortably agree, or they may open up and start a longer conversation with you. And, if you’re new to talking to strangers, the best part is that you only have to make it through a few floors on the elevator.
  3. Notice something about the other person. Kio describes this as finding something to compliment. That works, but you could also comment on how you both seem to cross paths around the same time everyday. Or, that you hadn’t seen them in the lunchroom for the last few days. And, of course, you could fall back to a compliment on their haircut or new shoes.

I’d love to hear what your experiences have been with trying out any of these tips! Share in the comments.

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