The stranger is our savior

Column by CeciUrbanski

Graphic by CeciUrbanski

How come we give the people we know the benefit of the doubt, but never the stranger? Why is it that we condense the entirety of a human into a first impression and a stereotype? While this sort of behavior may shield us from the dangers of vulnerability and trust, it also prevents us from truly ever understanding the stranger. 

People are far more complicated than we lend ourselves to believe, and when we fail to remember this we run the risk of oversimplification and generalization. Oftentimes in politics and social issues, the stranger is painted as the villain, the other, the source of our world’s problems, the scapegoat. The reality is that strangers are our solution.

How can we honestly consider ourselves to be healthy contributors to society without making the effort to see what that society looks like to the person sitting next to us? We must reignite our childlike curiosity about those around us. There is a profound sense of humanness that develops within us when we begin stepping past the boundaries of race, class, creed and culture by sharing conversation. Smiles in passing, earnest exchanges with the cashier and ramblings with co-passengers are the cure to the disease of polarization. We are allowed to talk to strangers.

Humans have an intrinsic need to belong. By establishing connections with strangers and recognizing the similarities in one another, we simultaneously establish a sense of belonging to a community that transcends all cultural and societal barriers: humanity. 

Studies have shown that talking to strangers more often improves mental health. Recently, a study published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a connection between something the researchers call relational diversity and a person’s general happiness and richness of life. They define relational diversity as the degree of variety a person has in the types of people they interact with and the relationships they maintain. 

The researchers collected data from public sources and surveys through the World Health Organization and the Bureau of Labor Statistics about people’s daily social habits. The team found a distinct correlation between people who would consider themselves more satisfied in life and people with high relational diversity. 

Ultimately, the study concluded that while it is critical to have a tight and dependable social circle such as family or close friends, it is equally important that we have meaningful interactions with people outside that circle. 

As a world that is no longer confined to small communities and villages, we are all being forced to interact with strangers on a daily basis. Strangers are by no means easy to figure out and make sense of, but neither are the people we hold close. There is no clear formula that can articulate the healthy amount of suspicions we must hold against others or the amount of trust we ought to lend. There is no rule book on how to fairly judge a stranger. Therefore, in order to conquer the urge to immediately paint the stranger as an enemy, we must equip ourselves with patience and empathy. In order to truly love, we must learn to no longer see strangers. Rather, we must train our eyes to see the human with a story.

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