I do desire we may be better strangers


I have a friend who is wary of talking to strangers. I suppose it is common enough -depending on circumstance and location, it might very well be a prudent thing to feel- and yet it seems to expose a gap in our society. A hole in an awkward area of our clothing we would rather not expose. Or maybe it’s an unwanted concession to that old saw that we dare not speak truth to power; we may unleash something we cannot foresee. Cannot control.

Admittedly I approach the issue with some privilege: I am an elderly male, and seldom fashionably dressed, so very few rewards would likely be gained by encountering me; in fact I, rather than the stranger, would probably be the beneficiary of any encounter. I’d like to think we both would, actually. Ennui thrives on isolation.

At any rate, I have long been a reader of strangers, long been curious ever since I figured out the Theory of Mind when I was an infant. Among other things, it suggested there may be others out there who have interesting thoughts that hadn’t occurred to me. Other ways of looking at problems. New ways of seeing the same thing. Strangers are my books… perhaps I am theirs…

With this in mind, I waded into an essay in a BBC Future article entitled ‘The surprising benefits of talking to strangers’ written by Emily Kasriel, Head of Editorial Partnerships and Special Projects at the BBC World Service. I expected great things from it: she’s a stranger. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200914-the-surprising-benefits-of-talking-to-strangers

No doubt engendered by the vicissitudes of Covid and its lockdowns, the essay nonetheless allowed me through doorways that might otherwise be guarded. I am, of course, an unknown risk, better avoided or at least physically, if not mentally, distanced just in case -after all, viruses aren’t the only things spread in a pandemic. But would we still think this way under less trying conditions?

‘Nick Epley at the University of Chicago has devoted much of his [pre-Covid] academic life to investigating our relationship with strangers.’ Commuters, for example. ‘Why did they ignore each other every morning? Was it that family and friends are beneficial but strangers are dangerous, or rather we expect them to be?’ Or is it that we wonder if we’d actually have anything to say to someone we didn’t know? Epley ‘discovered what he termed an “anti-social paradox”, where people consistently underestimated how much they would enjoy talking to strangers.’

Kasriel herself apparently gave a TED talk about this very topic because she felt ‘in order to sustain a shared sense of a community, we need to encounter those who are different to us. If we only continue to talk to those we know already, we retreat further inside our social bubbles, whose membranes may become less permeable over time. Without engaging with a wider circle, we have fewer opportunities to challenge our assumptions or understanding about people significantly different to ourselves.’

Of course, the Covid mentality can be a two-edged sword, as enforced social distancing begins to lead to defiance and the flouting of common-sense. But I’m not thinking of that as much as how strangers are traditionally regarded. What is it we fear from those we don’t know if it is not contagion? Violence? Rejection…?

What I’m afraid of, I suspect, is a kind of existential loneliness where I am confined to my own vetted friends, my own societal equals, and my own tribe -or should I call them my own ‘caste’? It might be like having to watch only black-and-white movies, when I yearn for the colour of strangers, the patter of accents, the barrage of unfamiliar ideas…

At any rate, we learn to read people I think. Nowadays, forget the mask covering the face -it’s from the eyes that the first information springs, not the mouth. They tell you what to expect. They tell you whether to approach.

And in the forest, there are few masks anyway. Since my house is surrounded by forest, I find I am an inveterate runner of trails, and my usual lengthy route is a solitary, unmasked one, albeit one providing sufficient warning of my approach with my bright orange (or yellow) sweat shirt.

Of course, encountering someone who is masked, suggests an underlying concern that they may not be sufficiently protected from contagion by distance and wind, even outdoors. I try not to tarry around them. And yet, sometimes -often, in fact- their eyes invite, so I engage.

I stop -a polite distance from them- and usually joke that I wear my outrageously coloured shirts to alert them that I’m approaching when I’m still far away. I can tell, even through their masks, that they are smiling. Even masked, they seem to welcome almost any colourful stranger that comes pounding along the trail. I suspect it has always been that way -especially in the pre-Covid days when there was no fear of the toxic aerosol I may be carrying with me.

From the elderly, I usually hear about their athleticism in their salad days; from the rest, about how a recent injury has prevented them from reinstituting their weekend runs, or how the forest is the only place they can let their dogs off-leash without fear of retribution. At this stage they guiltily make sure they show me the compostable retrieval bags attached to the empty leashes hanging around their necks -in case I might know somebody who retributes…

Of course, by that stage, I am on my knees and petting their dog, so there is an almost palpable bond between us. There are no strangers who walk a wagging dog. There are no awkward gaps where either of us are at a loss for words.

But there are many other venues where I start random conversations with strangers even dog-less ones: at crosswalks as I’m waiting for the little walking-man light to come on; in socially-distanced lines standing in those circles with the little feet drawn in them when I’m waiting in a supermarket. In any line for that matter. Anywhere there are people who don’t know each other, but would love to pass some time with words. We are, after all, social creatures, and memories of the hive are still alive and pulling.

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