Who would have thought conversations with a little boy and a young man would force me to question how we perceive others...
I think that everyone’s definition of a stranger is inherently different. Our personal experiences and values play an instrumental role in shaping our views on the world and on others. For example, one of my closest friends has a very specific definition of ‘friend.’ To her, a ‘friend’ is someone who you can confidently spend time with one-on-one, confide in, and feel no internal obligation to earn their validation and/or approval. To me, a friend could fit that definition, but just as easily be the girl I see at the gym once a week, who knows my name, I know hers, and we knowingly have one thing in common: we go to the same gym. I don’t actively think about chasing or earning her approval, I would not confide in her for anything in particular, nor would I ever expect us to ever spend time together outside the gym… yet… I would still consider her a friend. And I think that the same subjectivity is applicable to strangers.
While consciously thinking about interacting with strangers, I realized how frequently I engage in conversation with strangers on a regular basis. I work as a barista and often find myself initiating small talk with customers, and watching those customers turn from strangers into regulars. From regulars into comforting, familiar faces. In addition, I have always been the type of person who is comfortable approaching strangers, and often hand out compliments to strangers throughout the week.
Despite these frequent occurrences in my life, the interaction I had with a stranger this week was most unexpected – a quick chat with a young boy I met in the toy section of London Drugs. As I walked the aisle shopping for toys with my little cousins, I noticed a boy, who must have been only 5 or 6, carrying one of the same toys as my cousin. A small, colourful bowling set. He was staring at her, starstruck that they seemed to have picked out the same thing. I looked at him and said “Well, it sure looks like you have good taste.” Addressing the fact that they both took interest in the same item felt really natural, and after I spoke, I watched his eyes light up. Upon his excitement, I asked him what his favourite part about the toy was, and listened as he went on about how he gets to play it with his Grandma when she comes to his house, and now he wants to get her one that he can play at her house. While talking to strangers can be unnerving, there was something incredibly heartwarming and comforting about talking to this little boy. I was impressed by how social and friendly the boy was, and how genuinely interested I was in hearing the story about his grandma.
Ironically, later that week, I went bowling with some friends. I noticed someone in the lane beside us wearing a t-shirt from the same brand as the shirt I was wearing. It is a fitness apparel brand, worn predominantly by people who lift. I went over to him, and complimented his t-shirt, hinting at how I was wearing a similar one. He muttered “thanks,” and didn’t pick up on it right away. When I gestured to my own shirt, there was almost no reaction at all. I asked him if he got his from the new drop on the website, and he once again mumbled “yeah,” presenting absolutely no interest in engaging in conversation with me. His body language was closed off, and directed away from me. I knew then that I ought to back off.
I found it very intriguing to compare these two interactions. You might’ve envisioned a young man to be more open to conversation, and perhaps a child to be more shy, and yet the circumstances with these two were rather the opposite. When going into the conversation with the little boy, I expected him to stare blankly at me, and maybe even walk away. With the young man, I expected him to share my excitement in our similar attire, and possibly even start a conversation about lifting or the brand we were both wearing. Yet, in each of these cases, the outcome was beyond the scope of what I had prior scripted in my head. I suppose it just goes to show that with strangers, there truly are zero expectations.