We are strange. People are strange. Strangers are strange.
What makes us walk a different direction, grimace or shuffle in discomfort from a stranger’s presence? Is it their personality? Their secrets? Their story? Nah. It has little to do with reality and more to do with our imagination. We simply guess: we notice how they look and we give them a back-story of our own.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” If you say you don’t do this or believe you don’t, you’re deluding yourself. We do it every day, everywhere! Strolling in the mall, commuting by metro, during awkward elevator encounters, breaks at work or entering a schoolyard; we can’t help but play the guessing game.
As children we were taught not to talk to strangers. As we got older the world taught us why. We can’t help but fear them from stories, books, movies and news. A stranger who can be anyone from a thriller movie: serial killer, psychopath, thief, kidnapper or worse. It’s a learned response. So, how do we weed out the potentials? We look them up and down, head to toe, and try to pull a Sherlock Holmes.
In the U.A.E, a country of diversity, where there are over 200 nationalities, you meet all kinds. We glare at their hairstyles, eclectic accessories, their shabby, hipster, classy or chic clothes and shoes; all of which act as a reflection of their personality.
Judging by appearance, we classify them as friendly or uninviting. We shoot down the idea of approaching those who appear intimidating or look like they prefer keeping to themselves – especially when they’re carrying a Gucci handbag, a gold-studded iPhone or driving a Ferrari. On the other hand, we see some strangers as being beneath our acknowledgement – No one’s going to say that out loud, but we’ve all had these encounters. Building cleaners, the guys serving at the cafeteria or someone else’s maid.
To avoid being embarrassed by interacting with a stranger, we ignore them altogether. Moreover, strangers share a mutual understanding that, since they do not know each other, they are not obliged to interact. Why bother?
Bother because otherwise you lose out on an opportunity: of getting to know them. Underneath that beard may be a guy who is having a hard time at work. Behind those Ray Bans may be a woman who is afraid to go to visit the doctor for a diagnosis. You can replace your imaginary back-story with their real one.
We miss the chance to interact with a potentially interesting person. A potential friend or confidante. We’re not talking about approaching strangers on the street [although that’s an idea], we’re talking about getting to know neighbours better, smiling at the security guards and striking up a conversation with strangers at a conference, without going by the look of their hair or shoes.
Let’s see strangers for what they are: friends waiting to happen. Don’t judge them by the way they look; and be mindful when you do. The city can be a lonely place for new-comers: Greet the bus driver ‘Good Morning’ or simply say hi, pay the elevator stranger a compliment and don’t forget to smile.
Your smallest acknowledgement can make someone’s day.