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surprising truths about strangers

June 29, 2013

Yesterday I was at our local bank branch, which will be closing next month. I asked the teller who waited on me where everyone was going to end up. Two of the other tellers will be going to a branch down the road, but she herself has taken another job, and will actually be leaving before the branch closes. I asked if she would be a teller again, and she said no, she was making a big change, and would be working in an office: Monday through Friday only; regular hours; more money. The only downside seemed to be going from 4 weeks’ vacation at the bank to 2 weeks at the office.

In the five years I’ve known her, I’ve never seen evidence that she is a person who likes change, perhaps borne out by, it turns out, her tenure at this bank of almost 20 years. She told me she worried that things at the office might not work out, and then she would have no choice but to come back to banking, and start over from the bottom. I disagreed. I told her that even if her new position didn’t work out, she might find new possibilities open to her she couldn’t imagine yet. She agreed, with some surprise, that that might be true.

That conversation was the most pleasant encounter I’ve ever had with her. I think that’s because I treated her like a stranger.

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I’ve mentioned before that I have found out, from books, that apparently human beings (and other primates) instantly assess/evaluate others for rank — who is higher in status? And on that basis, they know how to act.

I don’t do that. I don’t know how to do that. I wouldn’t even know how to experiment with trying to do that.

I think of everyone I meet as my equal, my peer. It didn’t originally arise out of a moral or spiritual stance; it’s how my brain actually works. Which, from a primate worldview, seems to mean I’m deficient, or I have a defect, because without that constant assessment, how do I know who to treat with contempt? How do I know who I can disrespect with impunity? How do I know who it’s safe to throw under the bus?

Those are the most important considerations in my family of origin. Treating someone ‘like family’ means treating them like mortal enemies, whom you might also, sometimes, be (temporarily) allied with.

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The compelling thing about strangers is that they are different enough from me that trying to determine who outranks who is functionally impossible. Therefore, the approach that comes naturally to me — treating strangers as my equals — fits these situations in a way the other approach does not.

You might say, in situations with strangers, I have an advantage.

The better I get to know someone, though, the trickier things get for me, in navigating social expectations:

  • Treating someone ‘like family’ means mistreating them, which I don’t want to do.
  • Everyone bonds over how similar they all are. Diversity is bad.
  • Many other people seem to want the behavior of others they are in relationships with to be completely predictable. Surprises are inherently bad.

When I want to show respect or affection to someone, I treat them like a stranger. Even if we have history together, I don’t assume I know how they feel about anything in particular, what they would do in any specific situation, what really matters to them. Instead, I ask. If they are inventing a new self on the spot? Marvelous! Maybe together, in this moment, we can go to places we never thought of before. We can surprise each other in a good way (SEOIAGW). We can learn from each other.

Anything is possible when I meet a stranger. So I want everyone to stay ‘strangers’.

My lived reality — feeling like a stranger wherever I go — now seems like a blessing. I know how it works from inside and outside. I love strangers who are not me, and strangers who are. The world is full of wonders and marvels.

Be a stranger.

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