Beautiful strangers

28 June 2015
28 Jun 2015
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

One of the things that we’re all led to do during vacations across the country is meeting strangers. And over the last few weeks, from the nearly two-week vacation to the west and then during a summer camp I just attended, strangers were the norm of the day. Among the thousands of people I saw each day, all except a handful were people I saw for the first time, and I most probably wouldn’t see those same people again in my life. But while my encounters with these strangers ranged from the casually delightful to the awkward to the blandly obscene, those three-second interactions that we have with strangers – and how they sometimes develop further – have really fascinated me recently.

Smile at a stranger. See what happens. - Patti LuPone

For the vast majority of people you bump into during an evening walk or on the streets, a simple nod of recognition or a smile does the job. But occasionally, there are those people who do something small, say something short and sweet that changes how you think about that person. But those moments don’t last too long, and they (and we) go our separate ways.

During my brief stay at Yosemite two weeks ago, I went out on a brief morning walk to get some pictures of the sunrise and get some fresh air. And while I was snapping some beautiful shots of the sunrise on the granite walls of the valley, I met a guy doing the same thing, and we ended up having a nice conversation for just a few minutes, after which we went our own, separate ways. But during that conversation, for a brief moment in time, there was something special in that interaction that I don’t really find anywhere else. Conversations with strangers are always interesting because it exists in an unusual middle ground in between familiarity and complete anonymity, where you’re jutting getting to know someone, but not well enough to call each other familiar. Sometimes it’s awkward, and many times nothing comes out of the interaction, but these smaller moments with strangers still feel unique and special. And if you’ve struck up a conversation with a stranger, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

Of course, not every interaction with strangers is as pleasant. The day before that nice encounter, I got yelled at by another complete stranger for parking spot issues*. But once in a while, there are those interactions out of the blue that turns into a short conversation or friendships, and I think there’s something special about those interactions that, perhaps, longer, more familiar relationships don’t really give us. And I think that’s at least in part because of the way we get to know new people.

In my mind, the process of getting to know someone, like any good process, comes in three stages. The first stage is complete lack of familiarity, while the second and third are when you get to know someone as a person, and then become friends, so to speak. And in the first step here, I think most of us do a terrible job of imagining others as a person. That’s to say, we don’t try to understand strangers with the same degree of human complexity and nuance with which we understands friends and family – they’re just strangers, human beings whose faces we don’t recognize and names we haven’t heard of. But during those first few exchange of words or a smile, I think that barrier is broken, and we begin to understand those strangers with a little more complexity. And I think that moment – when strangers go from empty faces in our minds to a person with their own thoughts, lives, and opinions – is quite special.

During those first few exchange of words or a smile, I think that barrier is broken, and we begin to understand those strangers with a little more complexity. And I think that moment – when strangers go from empty faces in our minds to a person with their own thoughts, lives, and opinions – is quite special.

Over the past week, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with the Purdue Entrepreneurship Academy to do some cool stuff, and as with all summer camps, it’s a week-long process of getting to know a lot of people. Day 1 and 2, I was still stuck imagining almost everyone else as flat, simple characters in a novel, if you will. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone. But as the days passed and the week flew by, the people’s names and faces became something more than just supporting characters – the faces and names became three-dimensional, complex and nuanced people in my mind, each with their unique stories and personalities, and many of them became friends. I wouldn’t exchange that week for anything else.

Both as a society and culture, and also as individuals, we tend to put emphasis on the long-lasting, most significant interactions and relationships in our lives. Your lifelong friends, your spouses**, your family, and your mentors are in the center of attention, while the strangers we meet for minutes, hours, or even days get swept aside, and often forgotten. But I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate. Strangers are strangers not because we don’t stay with them for a long time, but because we neglect to imagine them complexly as individuals just as nuanced as us and with similarly unique and significant narratives. And once a relationship passes that threshold, when they become more than just a flat, static character in our lives, I don’t think they’re strangers anymore. Even though I stayed with some of my friends for barely a week this time around, I know them better than many of the people in my class, some of whom I’ve spent years with. As far as I’m concerned, they aren’t strangers I’ve known for a week; they’re people I can reach out to and have a good time with. And I hope they feel the same.

* This is an entire saga on its own that I’d rather not get into in great detail. Let’s just say everybody becomes the devil when they don’t get their parking spots.

** Which, by the way, can now be of either gender regardless of your own – good for you, America.

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