Monday, January 17, 2011

Lessons learned in Darwin: Part 2 (Unlearning everything I ever thought about strangers)

source: Champagne & sequins

To strangers you do not smile, you do not wave, you do not ask questions and you do not - ever - look them in the eye. You don't know them and they don't know you, hence why you're strangers. There's an assumption that that's the way it has been and should be. 

They could be dangerous, they could be weirdos, you have no idea who they are and again the question begs to be asked 'why would you anyway?'. With the risk of sounding a little dramatic, it's one of the poverties of modern life the way we view strangers. 

'In Darwin' (yes, here we go...!) nobody was strange and certainly they were not strangers in the way I viewed them. I walked into the place with the feeling that the distance between me and these people I had not met yet was to be bridged surprisingly easily, surprisingly fast. The formula was exceptionally easy and something I want to share with you.

It goes like this: smile, laugh and smile some more. Sing, dance and laugh some more. Smile, dance and sing at once. Smile, laugh and smile some more. Listen, care and remember. 

Everything I can ever remember being taught about strangers was wrong. At least, it did not apply here, to this situation. I wasn't scared if people didn't wave back or return my smile, I wasn't self conscious about making my first impression based on the clothes I was wearing or the way my hair fell (super baggy clothes borrowed from my brothers closet & hair either in piggy tails or up in a big sumo-wrestler-style bun). I didn't stop my wave half way through thinking someone had forgotten who I was or look the other way when somebody was walking past. 

When you travel, at least I have heard, there is some of this among travellers. This easy bond, this fluid openness. Some people, like my brother, are born without the fear of talking to strangers - they have the confidence to follow their curiosity and genuine interest in people whose lives they do not know. For me, I've always been tentative, nervous, loitering at the door trying to make up my mind whether to say hello.

With acquaintances even I second guess myself, should I say hello? Oh they've already seen me now I have to, but they're with somebody else.. Should I? It's this inane relationship as much about ourselves as about other people. We let our own insecure, shy or hermit selves get in our own way of breaking down barriers that really shouldn't be there in the first place.

I always cringed at the saying, 'Strangers are friends you haven't met yet' but nowhere was this more true than my experience in Darwin. I've come back to Sydney wanting to smile at people on trains and wave hello, I've wanted to ask people how their days have been, where are they from, what their names are, how old they are and what they're interested in. I've wanted to give people hi-fives and clap when they get something right, I've crossed over.

The secret is that 'Stranger Danger' doesn't apply in most situations when you're an adult. If you're a functioning adult there's no reason you have to renounce the ease with which you made friends when you were a child - colourblind and over peanut butter sandwiches and swing-sets.

Here's hoping I take some of this away with me to Spain, obviously with some alterations to accommodate for not being robbed and trying to be street smart. The balance between gauging the situation and overcoming barriers to strangers will be tricky, but if the friendships I made in Darwin are anything to go by it's definitely worth a try.

Edit: Here's a video I stumbled across on the Queensland floods, volunteers & the value of strangers

1 comment:

  1. Okay, first of all I have to say that the photo you chose for this post is PERFECT--it goes so well with the topic :)

    I love the idea you raise here in how we interact (or don't interact as the case may be) with strangers. I always thought it was interesting how you might be walking down a street and a person would be more likely to wonder at your meaning if you make eye contact and smile---as opposed to frowning and staring right through them.

    Are we that disillusioned and numb to basic human interaction? Obviously there is a realistic need to remain street smart, as you mention, but why close off all prospects of a connection? Who know's what we might be missing out on.

    I'm so glad you were able to have this experience before you leave for your study abroad trip!! You'll be all the better for it and end up with some amazing friends in the process.