As children growing up in North America, we are taught to actively avoid people we don’t know. In order to ensure that we don’t jump into the car with the first person who offers us candy, parents paint a picture of “the stranger” as someone dangerous, someone foreign, someone who could easily take us away from everything we know and love. While most stop at striking the fear of God into wandering offspring, some parents go to such lengths as keeping their children on a leash-like lead to monitor their safety 100% of the time. Not my style, but who am I to judge? When I have kids, I’ll blog about it.
What I want to know is how this mentality translates into our actions as adults? As we grow into an older version of ourselves, how do we treat the stranger? With kindness? With indifference? With fear? As odd as it may seem to some, I grew up with a different sort of mantra running through the household. While we were cautioned, like other children, to stay alert and not to go anywhere with anyone outside the inner circle, we were also told that people are generally good and worth taking the time to get to know. In fact, the saying that ran through my house was: “strangers are just friends, waiting to be met” and to be honest, it kind of stuck.
This saying was a product of my father, who tirelessly advocated optimism and kindness over the Hobbesian view of many around him. He wasn’t overly spiritual and certainly not religious, but there was always an element of karma in the practices he would preach; “what goes around comes around” and all that. As a kid, especially growing up in the suburbs where everyone is interconnected in some way, shape or form, you take for granted the fact that your parents are friendly with everyone in town. In seemed so natural, and for my dad, it was. It was only when I grew up a bit however, and started to observe the workings of society through a more experienced set of eyes, that I finally understood the effort my dad really put into being friendly to everyone he met. I realized that putting the extra time and effort put in to making people feel special and forming a relationship through every interaction isn’t natural, otherwise everyone would do it… right?
Unfortunately, the reality is that as we mature from children to adults, other aspects of life take precedent over forming relationships with people who don’t impact our lives on a day to day basis and the opportunity to have a meaningful interaction with a complete stranger is lost. You may shrug off this type of effort as useless, a waste of time even, and to the social elite with an attitude to match, you may think you’re above mingling with the girl behind the counter – well, guess what? You’re all wrong. These shared experiences are beneficial in ways you can’t even imagine. From making you feel all warm and mushy on the inside to creating a trust between strangers that may serve you well in the future.
Example: For the past two months, you have frequented the same coffee shop every morning before heading into the office. Every morning you exchange pleasantries with the barista serving you your beverage – you know her name and that she’s working simultaneously to finish up a law degree, she knows you’re married with three kids – you’ve created a relationship with boundaries built on mutual respect and interest in the well-being of the other party. You go to pay for your drink, like you do everyday, only today you forgot your wallet on your desk at home. Chances are very high that this particular barista who is no longer a stranger but an acquaintance of sorts, will trust you to pay twice tomorrow and offer you a coffee on the house.
No, free coffee should not be the sole motivator on your journey to make new friends, but that kind of reaction is a direct result of time invested into getting to know someone and shows that repercussions of building relationships that last. Take a moment to think about how you interact with people on a regular basis. How many times do you go to the same grocery store and find yourself face to face with the same cashier? Do you know them by name? Why not? They may be a stranger but they are also a person with an entire life of stories to share. Not sure where to start? Try this.
When someone asks you “How are you”, which is the polite thing to say, make a concerted effort to say anything other than “Fine thanks, how are you?” It sounds easy, but it’s not. Instead of being quick to partake in the premeditated ritual of greetings between service provider and customer, take a minute to answer honestly. If you’re having a bad day, tell them about it. If you’re having a great day, share the good news! In the end, most people like to engage and you’ll find yourself having an memorable interaction with anyone you meet. It’s also a great practice in the art of ‘opening up’.
After years of observing my father interact with people at work, at home, in the community, even abroad, I try really hard to follow in his (much larger) footsteps. Of course, overcoming our tendency to avoid strangers is more than taking the time to chat with the person behind the counter. It’s about building a skill, and shaping a lifestyle. From chatting with people on the bus, or saying hello to a passerby, to engaging in random acts of kindness just to put a smile on the face of someone you’ve never met. Take the time to overcome your fear of strangers and open yourself up to a wonderful world full of friends, waiting to be made.