People are strange

Stranger, by Dennis Skley on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I’ve been fine, just fine! A little busy lately. And surprised to suddenly feel busy. I had a dream last night that I was giving birth. A very kind friend on Facebook suggested that one interpretation for this is, I have some kind of project that will soon come to fruition. To which I say: YIPPEE! (And also: When that happens, will someone please let me know?)

I recently picked up a book that spoke right to my heart. When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You is a small book by Kio Stark that reveals the pleasures of talking to strangers. (You can get a sense of the book in Stark’s related TED talk on the topic.)

I’ve always been fond of talking to strangers. It’s probably one of the reasons I doggedly insist on living in a big city, instead of moving to where the air is cleaner and the housing stock is cheaper. I have to believe that a good portion of the people I encounter in a given day living here agree with me — that contact with strangers is not only a must, but a bonus to living cheek-by-jowl with people you aren’t related to. Even a grocery shopping trip can put me into close contact with strangers here — at the food coop we belong to, you can borrow a cart to get your groceries home, and a fellow member who is on duty as a cart walker goes with you, and then returns the cart to the store for you. I have had fantastic conversations on these ten minute walks.

I hope I am transmitting my enjoyment of talking to strangers to my kids. Stark, who has a four-year-old daughter, talks about observing, as they walk around the neighborhood, how her daughter “sort[s] strangers,” figuring out who to greet, and what to say, based on her mother’s choices. The way we categorize others is the foundation for our interactions with them, Stark says, but the fact that the “us and them” approach to categorization worked at earlier periods in human history, does not mean it is always relevant to be wary of strangers now. Certainly not when I’m walking around my neighborhood. (And yet, it would still be relevant if I were to approach the owner of a 24-hour fried chicken restaurant in New Jersey, who scatters bombs in his spare time.)

Another aspect of stranger interactions that Stark brings up is “fleeting intimacy,” the kind we share in passing on the street, waiting in line, or riding the train. The importance of seeing and being seen is at play here, Stark says — when you speak to someone you normally wouldn’t, when you have some small interaction with them, under the umbrella of the transitory moment you share, it can buoy you. Lift you. Your existence in the universe is acknowledged, and confirmed.

When I was on steroids last year and the year before, I suddenly couldn’t stop talking. People who knew me recognized it as a personality shift. I also talked to plenty of people I didn’t know, or hadn’t known very well, before the medication transformed me into a hyperloquacious flaneuse, always on the lookout for the next transformative conversation on the street. I never really interrogated the reason behind my sudden, urgent need to talk to everyone. And now, suddenly, it becomes clear. My existence was under a serious threat, back then. Each day, each hour, there was a chance the meds wouldn’t work, the tumors wouldn’t respond to the lasers. The weight of that knowledge was considerable. I would have easily retreated inwards, were it not for the medication that was making me suddenly sociable. Talking to people helped me confirm I was still here, and that this fact of my being here mattered, and it made me feel good enough to want to keep being here. What an amazing thing to realize, a year plus after the fact: Talking to strangers isn’t just a hobby. It is an act that might even improve your mental state, when you are under extreme stress.

Stark’s book concludes with a section called “Expeditions”: exercises you can undertake to put yourself in contact with strangers. Some (“Say Hello to Everyone”) are more easily accomplished than others (“You Don’t Belong Here” sends you into territory where you clearly don’t belong, with all of the dread associated with that for a functional introvert like me). All of them are worth considering, and maybe, eventually, doing.

While my period of uncontrollable interactions with strangers has (thankfully) passed, I still continue to seek out opportunities for these moments, the ones you walk away from keeping a smile on your face, long past the time it should have evaporated.

3 thoughts on “People are strange

  1. When I travel alone, I’m especially in need of interactions with people. I call it “collecting people” — the random conversations, knowing the likelihood of a second encounter is extremely slim. These mini-conversations keep me going, when otherwise I could descend into sadness/loneliness. Thanks for mentioning the book. I’ll look for it.

    Liked by 1 person

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