Et al. presents: On strangers


“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” - Ian Maclarenonstrangers.png

Three years ago, I spent my summer working as a host at an Olive Garden restaurant. I learned something in those summer months: as soon as you step behind the counter, you lay your dignity at the feet of that hungry, impatient horde known as customers. Anyone who has ever worked in food service (or any service industry) is familiar with this sacrifice, as well as the customers who take full advantage of that grim mantra: "The customer is always right."

I met friendly, kind and lovely people during my employment. But for every nice customer there seemed to be five who didn’t hesitate to treat me and my co-workers terribly. Some were impatient. Some were loud. Others were just outright mean. They seemed to view me less as a person and more as a tool or an obstacle. I hear similar stories of this treatment of workers all the time. But what makes this behavior so common?

I think that it has to do at least partly with the way we instinctively treat people we don’t know. There seem to be general expectations or social norms that guide how we treat our family and our friends. But instructions on how to treat strangers seem less standardized. The little we’re familiar with tend to be warnings: strangers are dangerous, don’t trust people you don’t know and so on. Our instincts echo this sentiment; if you don’t know someone, why should you care about them? What have they done that merits your friendliness?

To a certain degree, this makes sense. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested in 1992 that the maximum amount of people one can maintain stable social relationships with is somewhere around 150. This limitation is based off of the processing capacity of the human neocortex, which is to say simply that our brain can only process and manage so many friendships. We shouldn’t try to commit ourselves to every person we walk past on the street.

But does someone have to be a friend to deserve basic warmth and kindness?

On my last day of spring break, I went to Rita's with my younger brother. As we ate, we sat outside the shop soaking up the sun and watching cars fly by on the road. Suddenly, my brother started to speak. He pointed out that all the people driving past us had lives that were just as interesting and complex as our own. I said, "Wow, yeah." But he had more to say. He said that simply by sitting by the road we were taking part in their lives in a small way, in the form of an already fading memory of two boys sitting by the road with cups of ice cream and water ice.

The observations he made point to two very important understandings. First, we are not the center of our own universe. Duh, right? But how often do we see other people as obstacles or competitors rather than people with full and vibrant lives just like our own? Our survival instinct drive us to care for ourselves over everyone else. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get beyond looking after “numero uno.” But a fulfilling life begins when we step outside of ourselves and begin to see other people as, well, people.

Second, even the smallest interaction with others leaves a mark in their lives. It can be as simple as a smile or a frown on the sidewalk or in a coffeeshop. It can be as lasting as words we speak, maybe offhand, that stick in their minds for weeks or months afterward. We have the opportunity every day to join the lives of those around us in positive, uplifting, encouraging ways. It’s a wonderful opportunity that, speaking from personal experience in light of my own failures, so often goes to waste.

It's very easy for us to feel unmoved by the plights of strangers. It's also very easy for us to ignore or treat badly people who we might never meet again. I think both of these things prevent us from living well. God’s commandment to love our neighbors lies at the core of the Christian faith. Our love isn’t only for neighbors we know, like friends and family. It should also (perhaps especially) be for unfamiliar neighbors: the barista, the cab driver, the doorman – strangers, yes, but people, too.

Questions for further pondering:

1. How much kindness do we owe strangers? How invested can we afford to be?

2. Is a brief moment of interaction with a stranger enough to make a significant difference, either positive or negative?