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Talking to strangers can be rewarding

Published January 30. 2010 09:00AM

Sometimes, something I write touches a button in readers and motivates them to respond. And I never know which thought will bring that response.

That was the case with a past column where I wrote:

"The thought comes to me that 'by myself' is not the same as 'alone.' Somehow, alone sounds lonely, but 'by myself' is just the beginning of exploration."

It was a column about enjoying a dreary day, not about being alone. But that sentence struck a chord with four readers who sent e-mails to share their experiences of being alone.

One woman, who never married but is happily engaged in many aspects of life, said she can and does go everywhere alone. But it's never easy.

Too many times, she wrote, people don't make her feel welcome because she's not part of a couple. She claims that women are the worse offenders.

"I force myself to walk up to people at a party and try to make conversation. There have been times when women have turned their back on me as if I'm not even there. People aren't very welcoming to a woman who is alone,'' she claimed.

Well, she is right about one thing: It's the people around you that make the difference between arriving alone and feeling alone. You can be as outgoing as you possibly can, but if your overtures aren't welcome, you will feel alone.

One reader said she forces herself to go to social gatherings and community events alone, trying to make new friends. "I don't find my efforts to be very successful," she wrote. "What I did find is people go to social events and stay with those they already know. Maybe it's more comfortable for them to stick with familiar people, but in the process, they never get to know anyone else."

Only one man responded to the issue of "by myself is different from alone." Charles said he is divorced for 11 years. During much of that time, he was at home taking care of his elderly parents. When they died, he was quite lonely and began to work at meeting new friends and joining new activities.

"It's hard because I can carry on a good conversation on a one-to-one basis but it's absolutely terrifying for me to walk into an affair when I seem to be the only person who doesn't know anyone," he said.

I am extremely outgoing person and don't have a hard time talking to anyone. But I can relate to his feelings about how hard it is to walk in someplace alone.

Working for a newspaper requires doing exactly that. Whether it's covering a banquet, a meeting, or a big community happening, I've had to go everywhere alone. It's never been hard for me to do that.

But when my husband died, what used to be easy grew difficult. I remember forcing myself to go to a party alone, making a private deal with myself that I could not leave until I talked to six people. Sometimes, that was so hard that I found myself asking a stranger, "What are they serving?" then counting that as conversation.

The point I'm making is that my attitude greatly influenced my social success. When I was relaxed and outgoing, it was easy to make new contacts and people were welcoming. When I changed my attitude and thought social occasions were hard, it turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One reader, who said she never has a hard time talking to strangers and doesn't mind going somewhere alone, thinks the hardest part of meeting new people is having others take the time to get to know her.

"People who come in together tend to stay together and talk with each other. It's hard to break into established circles," she said.

That seemed to be the common response from those who responded to the column. But we can all do our part to welcome newcomers.

Friday night, I went to a boating club meeting for the first time and was absolutely amazed at how many people came up to welcome us. One man went so far as to move us from a table where we were sitting alone to one with six friendly members. He knew we were newcomers because the club gives red nametags to newcomers so other members can properly welcome them.

How nice. Wouldn't it be nice if other clubs and organizations had a similar approach?

The next time you're with your friends at a club meeting or social event, remember to make an effort to talk with newcomers, too, especially those who are alone.

After all, Will Rogers was right when he said: "Strangers are just friends we haven't met yet."

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