In today’s society we feel there is a real ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ culture. It’s becoming easier for people to blame others, another group of people that we do not know but because of how they look, or what religion they practice or because of their sexuality we blame or hate ‘them’.
This is something we are so passionate about changing, but we know this issue is global and we are only one small organisation. We are tackling this issue the only way we know how, from the inside out. When we employ a new team member we put them through 6 weeks of training, and below is an exercise we recently asked Kahani to complete; “start a conversation with three strangers”. Another way we have chosen to try and change this issue of stereotyping, ignorance and hate is with our next workshop called Let’s Talk, you can find more on that here!! We hope you enjoy what Kahani has written, full of honesty and reflection, we couldn’t be prouder to have her as part of The Kindness effect’s team.
How many strangers do you talk to on an average day? There’s that man you rubbed shoulders with on the tram. That barista who supplied you with your morning hit. Maybe that elderly woman you waited behind at the ATM. Or perhaps the parking inspector with whom you tried to wheedle your way out of a fine.
Spontaneous communication with random human beings seems no extraordinary phenomenon. But how does it feel to set about stranger interaction deliberately? To seek out conversation – on more than merely ‘the weather’ – with people you wouldn’t ordinarily start chatting to, for no other purpose than to chat? Call me odd, but this is precisely what I did. I’ve always believed myself a confident person. A non-judgmental person. An honest person. This would hardly present a challenge. I mean, I talk to new people almost every day, like most of us. This would hardly reveal much. Right?
Out of the house I strode to simply see what would happen. To step outside my comfort zone, and see if I knew as much as I believed I knew about others and about myself after all.
My first interaction unfolded in a public library, where I took a seat opposite subject numero uno: an elderly woman with short grey hair and glasses, writing in a notebook with a pile of very old magazines sitting before her. I instantly assumed she was undertaking some form of highly riveting research. I sat for a good minute or so before talking to this lady, um-ing and ah-ing about whether to interrupt her. Baffled at my own apprehension, I pondered – where on earth was my confidence now? That rationalising voice was taking over – she’s intently concentrating on her writing, you rude girl, don’t even consider it, interrupting would be most unkind. Alas, another voice, recognising the cowardice in that rationalising voice, won over. “Can I ask what these are all about?” I gestured to her magazines, and that was all it took to launch into animated discussion. The magazines were from the 1960s, and we talked about the depiction of women in ‘60s photographs, and about the male-dominated aspects of culture remaining today. I contributed what I knew about advertising and my own musings on feminism. How could it be so easy to keep a conversation with a stranger going? This lady was willing to expand beyond what I had expected. We ended our chat without awkwardness as I turned to my own work, and I silently, mentally fist-pumped the air with a sense of victory and relief for the conversation having progressed not only smoothly but enjoyably.
Who. Knew. I realised that I had assumed this person, because of her age, wouldn’t be interested in the same kind of things as me. Yet this feminist talk, which came about naturally, had me engaging with her enthusiastically and effortlessly. Perhaps even better, the conversation opened my eyes to how chuffed people can be when you express interest in what they are doing – even, perhaps especially so, when you don’t know them.
People just want to share. To have a voice. To be heard. And boy are there too many who don’t feel heard enough.
A day later I found myself in a line to claim free coffee, as you do, at my university. I am the sort of person who will do just about anything for something free, and a half hour wait would not deter me. Nor did it deter the Asian, 20-something male behind me. Headphones in and immersed in his phone screen, he appeared the sort I would never consider starting a conversation with. You see, that very morning, my part-time work for a promotional company had me declaring ‘free crepes’ on the street. It was a shift dominated by frustration with the passersby who gave me absolutely nothing – characters who looked exactly like this dude. Projecting this recent experience onto his appearance, I assumed him to be reserved. Probably antisocial. Very likely rude. That wise voice spoke up again – it is these very assumptions which place conversation with him outside your comfort zone, silly. Isn’t that what this challenge is all about? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t begrudging of the task. “How crazy is this line?” I blurted the moment he took his headphones out. To my surprise, Mr. Must Be Antisocial seemed instantly glad for the chance to talk. Before long we spoke about his work as a barista.
Enter: laughter. Genuine laughter. Such humour we shared in the fact that this guy was waiting half an hour in a line for a free coffee when he had access to all the free coffee he could want at the café he was working at that very day! We parted when I collected my coffee, and I felt my mood brightened by the quirkiness and friendliness of this character. But at the same, I sure felt a bit embarrassed about my judgments before our chat. The young barista seemed much more outgoing than I had perceived, and the reciprocal nature of the conversation made it unexpectedly effortless.
Sometimes we’re judging books by their covers even when we think we’re above that. It took five minutes to have me contemplating that perhaps I’m more presumptuous than I thought I was, particularly in terms of cultural stereotypes.
And perhaps brief conversations with strangers can uncover something much more than mere ‘small talk’ as I figured they generally would. The curiosity elicited from this stranger’s idiosyncrasies planted a seed of thought about what strange and funny creatures we humans are, a seed which blossomed for the rest of the day.
But nothing got me thinking more than my third stranger interaction. The setting of this exchange already had me semi-uncomfortable for striking up a conversation. I was in the gift shop of the National Gallery of Victoria, and whilst I enjoy the odd wander through a gallery, they don’t utterly fascinate me, and I certainly don’t know much about art. I’ve always been scared in such a setting of being ‘found out’ as a ‘faux’ art-lover, or less than cultured visitor, or something along those lines. A well-dressed man, slightly older than me at a guess, was running his hands over a sleek laptop case, and I selected him because I thought the case as beautiful a product as I could tell he was thinking. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” I commented, and we quickly moved to talking about the gallery. When he asked about the current Hokusai exhibition, I lied about coming back another time to visit the exhibition with a friend. I said it in an instant. As quick as I can recall my own name. Where did that come from? He then asked about the previous Van Gogh exhibition, and to my shock, I pretended again, saying I was disappointed I missed the boat. Truth be told, I never actually intended on going. Didn’t even consider it. These statements just burst from my lips (and very convincingly, I do believe!) without thinking, and the ease with which I lied had me quite taken aback following the conversation. But I later reflected that they both boiled down to my fear of being judged. First, for being stingy, since tickets to the exhibition were only $13 yet that was my reason for not going. And second, for not being ‘artsy’ enough. I left feeing envious of this avid exhibition-goer. I wished I was as ‘into’ art as he seemed. But more strikingly, how easy I had noticed it is to be dishonest with people you’re never going to see again. I paused to compare this with the people you see regularly, or are close to. I pondered my partner. Lying about even the tiniest, inconsequential thing to him feels impossible. I also wouldn’t worry about him judging me about those kind of things. It wouldn’t even cross my mind, allowing me to be transparent with him, easily and always.
We wish to be more alike with the people who cross our paths, and with strangers especially so. We wish to find common threads, some means of connection, however it is we can. It is far less comfortable to admit to a stranger and to explore with them any difference of opinion, interest, or way of thinking, especially in such a brief interaction.
Perhaps our personality types play a part. Perhaps my own tendency to loathe and avoid conflict drives me to stand on the same side as my gallery acquaintance albeit via dishonesty. Or perhaps it just comes down to something much the same for most people – that with people we don’t know, politeness simply prevails. Perhaps it’s broader than that, showing that we generally run on auto-mode for more hours of the day than not. We aren’t always consciously aware of what we are thinking or feeling, and hence what we say.
But three strangers later, and there was no doubting it. I’d woken up to a thing or two that I hadn’t been conscious of before. Sometimes it’s the little moments that have the biggest impact. These little interactions with nameless people taught me about my judgments and assumptions, my habits and my fears. It may have totaled to twenty minutes of conversation, but I connected in a way that I think the world needs more of.
No matter your confidence or personality type, your age or gender, your class or culture, I challenge you to seek some stranger interaction for yourself. Don’t be afraid. Or do. That’s cool too. Feel the fear and do it anyway. With the right mindset, I dare say you’ll walk away with something gained.
Join us and Let’s Talk – https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/lets-talk-tickets-36328466421