Talking to Strangers
We have two types of books about strangers: books that teach kids not to talk to them, and books to teach adults how to talk to them.— Christina Turner (@happywonderfool) June 8, 2017
Recently I joined a book club made up of total strangers. Goodreads and Facebook both independently recommended this group to me because I have multiple, mutual friends with almost every member of this club. But I had never met any of these women myself, and so I watched the group online for a few months, noted with interest the books they were reading, and vaguely considered recruiting one of those mutual friends to the group so we could go together.
Then one month they picked a book I really wanted to read, and almost without thinking, I went to a stranger's house, and met nine new women all at once. It went exceedingly well; we had a great discussion, and I'm looking forward to the next meeting. And there were many indications that, of course, it would go this way: a group of all women, readers no less, from my same area and with so many mutual friends was obvious algorithmic matchmaking, not a totally random party of strangers, or a CRASH-like situation.
To psych myself up enough to knock on the door, I considered how a few years ago, in college, a similar action wouldn't be considered radical at all, and actually was necessary for making new friends and having something to do. Why then did it feel like jumping off a cliff to walk down a street I've walked before, and to interact with people that I could have met at a gallery opening, a neighborhood concert, a grocery store, or a local bar... but simply hadn't?
I work at a public library, and so I interact all day with strangers. Anyone who works in customer service knows that feeling of their desk being a fortress that allows for friendly interaction literally at an arm's length. That desk is an impenetrable wall until one of two things happens: you are forced to walk around it out onto the floor, where anything could happen and sometimes does; or, much more rare, and much worse, someone attempts to come around it for one bizarre, unfathomable reason or another. And in that moment, there is a shift, the glow of delusion falls off and you recognize how terrifyingly exposed you are and have always been.
Thankfully, amazingly, in what will be 13 full years working with the public this week, there has been no major incident bringing to fruition any of those slew of things I'm instinctively afraid of, or have been told, repeatedly, could happen when you're out in the world. And of course, there are plenty of stories of people who "thought they knew" a family member or close friend, and then suddenly became their victim.
But two things are undisputably true: we are raised to be wary and downright fearful of anyone and anything we do not know, and also that the vast majority of strangers are not in fact out to get you; on the contrary, they're likely more afraid of you than you are of them.
Amazing things happen when we talk to new people: we have new ideas. We see things differently, and a little more completely. Things we were sure of we start to have doubts about, and things we denied show themselves to have sliver of truth. Our world get larger, our problems find solutions, and we start to think about conquering new, bigger problems.
There is a difference between taking a calculated risk and looking for trouble. But when you're able to look up for a moment from your daily grind and recognize how many of the people around you are going through all the things you're going through, also afraid and also feeling alone, it doesn't seem crazy to make eye contact, and consider an awkward conversation. You might have something they're looking for; and they might need to say exactly what you need to hear.