Talking to strangers

There’s something I’ve been struggling with recently: getting more comfortable talking to strangers and asking strangers questions. Reflecting on why I’ve found this so difficult made me think about whether there’s a better way to approach this whole comfort zone expansion thing. So far I've mostly been focusing on fairly big, individual challenges but it seems like at least sometimes, taking small steps might work better.

 This started a while ago after I noticed I felt pretty uncomfortable asking stupid questions. In an attempt to overcome this fear, I spoke to a friend who suggested going into shops and asking stupid questions of shopkeepers. I found this incredibly difficult to motivate myself to do, and ended up making a lot of excuses and putting it off. I did eventually have some success: the highlight being going into Poundland and asking a shop assistant how much different items cost. She was not amused and gave me a very dismissive reaction - "Everything's a pound. We're in Poundland" - perhaps my joke wasn’t as original as I’d hoped, or my naivety wasn’t as convincing as I thought. Despite this small success, I haven’t done much since then, and the thought of asking deliberately stupid questions of strangers still fills me with discomfort and dread.

I tried various different ways of increasing my motivation to do this. I tried making explicit commitments to other people to do it. This didn’t work: it seemed I was happier admitting I’d failed than actually doing the uncomfortable thing. I tried taking this commitment a step further and started using Beeminder to track asking stupid questions (I've mentioned it before, but ifyou don’t know what Beeminder is, it’s basically a motivational tool which allows you to track your progress towards a goal whilst charging you money if you go off track. For what it’s worth, I’m currently writing this blog post because Beeminder is forcing me to :) ). But this didn’t work, either: I derailed. It seemed I’d rather lose a small amount of money than actually have to do the uncomfortable thing.

I realised that if my attempts were repeatedly failing even when I increased the odds, maybe I needed to rethink what I was aiming to do. Why did this thing actually make me uncomfortable?  When I thought about it, there were actually a number of smaller things underlying my aversion to asking stupid questions. There was a fear of being perceived as stupid, sure. But there was also some discomfort in talking to or approaching strangers full-stop. An additional worry about annoying people. Plus generally feeling uncomfortable doing things that aren’t socially normal or expected. If I felt uncomfortable even approaching a stranger and asking them a normal question, or asking them how they were, it’s no wonder I felt uncomfortable asking a question that might be perceived as weird or annoying or stupid. Maybe it was a mistake trying to run before I could even walk.

I think there are two pretty good reasons in favour of taking small steps when it comes to expanding your comfort zone:

1. Small steps build success spirals

One thing that I’ve learnt from my attempts to expand my comfort zone so far is that it’s very like any other motivational problem. There’s some long-term goal you want to achieve, but it requires you to do something you don’t want to in the short term. And one thing that seems really important for motivation in general is having a sense of self-efficacy: believing that you can do it. If you’re feeling demotivated, one suggestion I’ve heard a lot and personally found really useful is to set yourself a really small task that you can’t possibly fail at. This gives you a sense of achievement, no matter how small, which helps you to continue - a strategy known as success spirals which is a really useful way to achieve your goals or build habits.

Although I know that this is a really useful motivational tool in general, until recently I hadn’t thought about applying it in this context. Instead, I’ve been doing what any expert in motivation would immediately tell me is a bad idea: setting big goals, which I then often fail to achieve, and feeling demotivated. I don’t think I’ve really started building success spirals, and as a result I think my sense of self-efficacy is still pretty low: despite the fact I’ve successfully done some uncomfortable things, in general I don’t feel that confident in my ability to do more. Focusing more on doing small out-of-my-comfort-zone things on a daily basis that I know are achievable might be a much better tactic than trying to do something big every couple of weeks.

2. Small steps might actually help more in the long run

Another problem I’ve found is that I’ll set myself a large(ish) challenge - like going into the free weights room or eating out alone - manage it once, but then never do it again. And although this gives me a sense of achievement (and something to write a blog post about!), in the long run I’m not sure my comfort zone has actually expanded that much. I might feel slightly less uncomfortable about eating out alone having done it once, but I still feel a pretty strong aversion towards doing it. What’s actually helped more than that one meal out has been the small things I’ve been doing to get more comfortable being alone - when I’m out with a friend and they go to the bathroom, or I’m waiting for someone, I’ve been trying out just sitting there without checking my phone or reading anything. Because I’ve repeated this small thing a number of times, I think it’s actually contributed a lot more to changing my discomfort levels than that one big challenge has.


These, to me, seem like pretty compelling reasons to try the “small steps, not massive leaps” approach to getting outside of my comfort zone. So I’ve just started beeminding my “asking questions” challenge again, but relaxed the conditions somewhat - any kind of question-asking or conversation-making with a stranger that I wouldn’t normally do counts. I’m already feeling more positive about my progress, and once this gets easy, I’ll move on to more challenging things.

Don’t get me wrong: the big challenges can definitely help too - especially when it comes to proving to yourself that something isn’t as bad or scary as you think. In some circumstances, throwing yourself in the deep end might be a good idea. But only if you can do it. If it’s a horrible experience or you drown, you’re not going to learn to swim and you’re going to be put off further attempts.