Thought Catalog

Why I Love Strangers

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“I just saw the most stunning man,” my aunt whispers in my ear. “Me too!” I’m squeaking. I’m squeaking at the MoMA over an attractive guy, despite being surrounded by what is probably the most comprehensive display of artistic talent I’ll ever take in all at once.

“Show me yours,” I say. I want to know if we’re talking about the same guy. My aunt stealthy guides my eyes toward a tall guy with dark features. He’s with his girlfriend. I disapprove. Leave it to my aunt to find the one Greek-looking guy at the de Kooning retrospective; it came as natural to her as my being repelled by his resemblance to some homeland cousin I’ll never meet. “Mine’s over there,” I point. He’s lost in a painting again. I’ve caught him three or four times by now, unblinking before these massive canvases. The expression on his face inspires me to do something, but I don’t know what.

My aunt walks over to him and observes the boy, the painting, the painting, the boy. Then she returns to me. “He’s intense.” We agree that the MoMA is a hotbed for attractive, interesting men, then we part ways and continue to mull around the exhibit on our own. My aunt is an architect, she understands shape and structure and color in ways that I can only feign, so when we go to museums together, we explore alone. It’s easier for me to understand what I’m seeing, that way.

I’m staring at Orestes when I realize my stranger is standing behind me. I don’t see him initially, I just feel him. My body tenses up and I feel excited by the idea that we’re looking at the same thing at the same time and seeing something different. I want to ask him what he thinks, but I stay quiet instead. I don’t want to ruin it. We fall in step with each other, mentally dissecting one abstract after another and I wonder how long it’ll last. I don’t want to manipulate my path for him; but I do want us to stay in synch, naturally, for however long we can for no reason other than it feels really good.

_____

These people we don’t know, strangers, are more than we give them credit for. They become teachers, friends, lovers. They can serve a minute purpose, something as simple as unintentionally escorting us through an art exhibit. They can provide catharsis, a place to unload our secrets and fears. They can keep us company on a flight or for the rest of our lives. For better or worse, strangers are equally as important as the people we already count as acquaintances.

Strangers are blank slates. They’re an opportunity. They are bursting with foreign lives replete with memories and knowledge and context that we are unaware of. A stranger isn’t just a novel we’ve never read; it’s one that might as well have never been written until the day we discover it. It is spectacular to think about – yesterday we didn’t know the other one existed, and today we’re standing beside one another and wordlessly sharing an experience.

Strangers give us a chance to understand perspectives alien to our own. Their beliefs and diction and smells and interests prick the bubbles we live in, bursting them and exposing us to things we never considered before. They’re bold and unafraid and unapologetic to be what they are because they don’t know how to be anything else, you’ll always have that in common with a stranger.

They expose us to new planets and galaxies, a new universe; but they also allow us a unique opportunity for introspection. Strangers are the keepers of our first impressions, our impressions belong to them and not to us, and it’s easy to feel out of control with that in mind. It’s common to worry about first impressions; to feel defensive when we learn that a new acquaintance dislikes the one we’ve given them. A bad impression, it’s like a gift someone smiles and accepts while thinking, “I don’t need or want this.” But this is one of the things that makes strangers valuable: their reactions to us force us to reevaluate the way we present ourselves. When you stand too close to a mirror, your view is narrow, blinding. Our friends and family, they’re standing too close. We’re standing too close. Strangers reflect who we are from a distance; they broadcast a limited but just-as-accurate picture.

Whether you’re charming or aloof or a total curmudgeon the first time you meet someone, and whether your demeanor is justified or not, the impression you leave behind reflects on who you are. It parrots the way you deal with inner-conflict, the way your stress manifests, how you behave when you’re feeling humble or fortunate or in love. Strangers keep us in check; they challenge us to be considerate despite our circumstances because we often only have one chance to do so. We have no rapport with them, so they’re not required to accept us at our worst. Ultimately, they have the power to drive us to be better versions of ourselves.

And isn’t that what anyone wants? To be a better version of themselves? To reflect something good, no matter how far or close someone else may be standing? I don’t think it’s a pipe dream to hope that people feel good after encountering you. It’s a reasonable desire to want the people who walk away from you to walk away smiling, whether it’s the only chance you get to leave an impression or the first of many.

We never spoke, the MoMA stranger and I, but I walked away understanding the art on the walls and the art between two strangers and momentarily I felt like a better version of myself; I walked away smiling. TC mark

image – Phil Roeder

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    • http://twitter.com/notjohnlee Mark

      (two long to tweet)
      “A stranger isn’t just a novel we’ve never read; it’s one that might as well have never been written until the day we discover it.”

      BRILLIANT

    • http://twitter.com/dkrangs Dana Krangel

      no strangers.  only future friends.

    • Nat

      This is wonderful =)

    • Sophia

      this is just perfect. sometimes i think about the vast number of people i pass every day and wish i could know them all, or at least encounter them all in a meaningful way.

    • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

      I’ve been wary of strangers ever since I had to read Stranger Danger in the fourth grade. 

      • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

        You missed out on a lot of puppies and free candy, I’ll tell you that much right now.

        • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

          I know. I know.  I’ve made up for my lost childhood by giving out free candy and offering my puppy to them. 

    • Anonymous

      ta.gg/5jo

    • Tori

      Really enjoyed this article. It was easy to read, yet it made me think. Nice work. :) 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=606045336 Alexandra Koktsidis

      I somehow always end up in very awkward, unwanted, or uncomfortable situations with strangers. Like with people on the train. And once, it was with a whole row of construction workers.

      Nevertheless, I really enjoyed reading this.

    • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

      It sounds weird, but I love all the small memories I have with strangers.
      Reminds me that you can find moments of happiness anywhere, anytime.

      • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

        Agreed. The moment doesn’t have to last for it to be enjoyable. If anything, it’s better that your experience stays frozen in that realm of the unknown

    • Guest

      stranger danger

    • Anonymous

      You haven’t heard of omegle have you? 

      Also, a couple of my friends suffer terribly from xenophobia…

    • rueben

      Indeed, there is nothing stranger than a stranger.

    • Anonymous

      ta.gg/5jo

    • Tracy

      Very nice..stranger : )

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

      I played a game with a friend where we pretend that we know what their lives are all about. We gave them another identity

    • http://twitter.com/mariedabbles Marie Martinez

      This is an idea that I’ve had clouded in my head for some time. I couldn’t really understand how someone I don’t know could evoke so much emotion from me.

      Anyway, you have given concrete words for my abstract thoughts.

    • Margiesque

      I love this – I’ve felt this way so many times since moving to London, and waiting for a train, and in so many other places.
      “Strangers give us a chance to understand perspectives alien to our own. Their beliefs and diction and smells and interests prick the bubbles we live in, bursting them and exposing us to things we never considered before. ” – this single-handedly gave me a ‘eureka’ moment for a piece of art i’m creating – I was trying to think of a visualisation for ‘pushing your boundaries’ and came up with a bubble or water balloon being burst – almost exactly the metaphor you chose here. I loved everything about this piece. Thank you!

    • Anonymous
    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1351650218 Kaity Wong

      Craig’s list missed connections?

    • https://thoughtcatalog.com/2012/i-live-in-the-same-town-as-you/ Oh, The Places We Won’t Go | Thought Catalog

      […] a nice day outside today,” A stranger says, not impolitely. There is no chance of forming a real relationship — not because we […]

    • http://www.itmakesmestronger.com/2012/10/oh-the-places-we-won%e2%80%99t-go/ Only L<3Ve @ ItMakesMeStronger.com

      […] a nice day outside today,” A stranger says, not impolitely. There is no chance of forming a real relationship — not because we […]

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