Talking to Strangers

shutterstock_313066517Neither of my children like to sit next to strangers. Whether we’re at the movie theater, on a train, or just waiting in line somewhere, they typically like me or my husband to serve as a buffer between them and the unknown person. I hope they grow out of it–I’m sure they’ll grow out of it–but for now it’s slightly annoying and I do try to get them to stop it. The funny thing, of course, is that we spend so much time when our kids are young warning them about strangers, and then we do a 180-degree turn and try to get them to not be scared of every stranger. Parenting, am I right?

On a trip to New York City yesterday, my daughter said to me, “You like talking to strangers.” It was an interesting observation because I have no doubt many people who think they know me or kind of know me from social media would think that I hate people. But my daughter is right–I DO like talking to strangers. And I typically do it without a conscious thought.

Looking back, I talked to many strangers yesterday: the couple taking a photo while waiting for the train, the four women sitting next to us in the restaurant we went to for lunch, a woman outside the theater taking photos of her kids, the woman sitting next to me in the theater, a couple of people on the train home. Of course, that doesn’t count my interaction with the train conductor, the waiters, or the many theater ushers.

I think, in our hearts, most of us don’t want to be strangers. Like the bar in Cheers, where “everybody knows your name,” we like to think we matter to the people around us and that we belong somewhere. Everybody wants to make a mark on the world, to be remembered after they’re gone, and interacting with those around us is at least a tiny way to make that happen.

Regardless of the country’s current mood, at heart most people have similar wants and desires. We can relate to one another, and communicate with one another, on a personal level, without even knowing or caring about one another’s politicial predilection or religious beliefs. As anybody who has chatted up the guy or gal next to them at the bar knows, strangers are full of stories. Sometimes they’re interesting, sometimes they’re boring, but almost all of the time it’s so much better to talk with a stranger than to just sit alone in silence.

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I find people fascinating. And truly, when people aren’t separated by vehicle frames and social media and other spaces that preserve their anonymity, people are mainly polite and kind. I think talking to strangers is one way I bolster my optimism and preserve my hope for this world. I hope when they talk to me, it does the same.

I’m not a big fan of selfies, so any time I get a photo with my whole family in it, I’ve relied on a stranger to take the picture. My daughter can’t believe I’d give my phone to a stranger and trust them not to walk away with it. Well, yes, I do tend to choose the type of person I ask and trust. But also, deep down, and even though I know better, I really want to trust everybody I meet. I’m not naive by a longshot, but even in this cynical world I still believe in the good in most people. I believe that, when given a chance, most people will do the right thing.

Of course there are monsters out there, and I’m teaching my children to recognize them. But I’d also like them to learn to take a chance on strangers. To realize we’ve all got good things that we bring to the table. That life isn’t about traveling with blinders on, not looking at, or interacting with, those around us. Much more than the kindness of strangers, we need to realize the value of strangers in our lives. And sometimes, these strangers even become friends.

©2016 Rachel L. MacAulay All Rights Reserved

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