When you were young, the adults in your life likely taught you about “stranger danger,” warning you that people you didn’t know could harm you.
When it comes to children, I wholeheartedly agree: Avoiding strangers is a good way to stay safe. Frankly, I still sometimes avoid strangers in public places for fear that something might go wrong. Perhaps it’s a reflex left over from childhood.
But when you’re a professional, strangers are exactly the people you should be talking to.
I don’t mean the random people you pass in the street. I mean the person you’re in line with at a professional conference, or the new employee in another department, or even the person sitting next to you at a coffee shop.
I like to think of networking as a way to make new friends, and there is a world of new friends to make. As the saying goes, “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met.”
My “talk to strangers” rule applies to LinkedIn, too. Job seekers often ask me whether they should accept connection requests from strangers on LinkedIn. Most people prefer to connect only with people they know personally or professionally, but if you’re looking for a job, connections are everything. Expanding your network will give you a better chance of finding someone who can help you land your next role.
It’s important to note that LinkedIn prioritizes candidates who have connections at the companies to which they apply. When you apply to a job on LinkedIn, the site sends your information to the recruiter or hiring manager. LinkedIn has to rank all the candidates who apply for the job, and it factors connections to the company into its decision.
On top of that, LinkedIn will let you contact strangers if they are second- or third-degree connections. This means you may be able to reach out to a hiring manager you don’t know — if you have enough first-degree connections, that is.
As for meeting strangers in real life, my advice is simple: Take the time to introduce yourself to new people at events and parties. Ask these people about themselves. Listen carefully. Afterward, follow up with them on LinkedIn and set a time to connect again in person.
With enough practice, these sorts of interactions will become more natural and less forced. With enough follow up, the strangers you meet won’t be strangers anymore — they’ll be business contacts. They’ll be friends. They’ll be people you can turn to when you are looking for a new job.
A version of this article originally appeared on Copeland Coaching.
Angela Copeland is a career coach and CEO at her firm, Copeland Coaching.