Context is everything

I have often noted that context makes a big difference to how strangers react to a greeting. A while ago, I wrote about friendliness to strangers. I opined that random acts of friendliness, such as a smile or a simple hello, were a good idea. Well, recently, I have done some thinking about how the context in which the one meets people influences how they will react. Here are some anecdotes that illustrate my point.

  • When travelling abroad, if I meet someone from my home town or from another place where I have lived, this stranger and I have an instant cammeraderie based on the fact that we share something that the others around us do not. Take for example, the folks I met at O'Leary's bar when watching the Super Bowl: we felt like we had an instant connection merely because we come from the United States. If I had met those same people in a bar in America, I am sure that we would not have felt the same connection.
  • In 1992, I took a ten-week backpacking trip aroud Europe. During the trip I sought out other English speakers because we were a minority, especially in Eastern Europe. I noticed the same sense of cammeraderie with these folks because we shared a common language. Something funny happened the day after I returned from my trip. I was back in Austin, going to Threadgill's with my family. As we walked across the parking lot toward the entrance of the restaurant, there was a couple talking as they also walked from their car to the restaurant entrance. I overheard them and they were speaking in English of course. My initial instinct was to walk over to them and say, "Hey, you speak English! So do I! Where are you from?" I'd been in Europe for such a long time that the instinct to seek out other English speakers was still with me even though I was back in an English-speaking country!
  • I was returning by subway from a party late at night a few months ago. Across from me was a cute girl, probably also returning from the evening's festivities. As most people do on the subway, we politley ignored each other, being careful not to make eye contect for very long. It's the sort of behavior one sees in animals when they're forced into crowded environments. Give the others as much space as you can. Well at one of the stations, a man stepped onto the train who was very intoxicated. He wasn't a mean drunk though; he was a hilarious drunk. He was making a fool of himself and talking with everyone on the train. He was a bit annoying though, and so the others on the train had this feeling in common. So all of a sudden, the girl across from me and I are on the same "team," so to speak. We're both thinking the same things about the drunk guy. She and I smiled and laughed a bit, and exchanged some small talk. So once again, having something in common, we felt a connection that hadn't been there before. If the drunk guy had not stepped onto the train, the girl and I would probably never have spoken to each other.
  • At a fancy party, there seems to be the assumption that eveyone in attendence has something in common too, but what, exactly? Even if I hardly know the host and don'e know anyone else at the party, if I'm all dressed up and surrounded by others who are similarly attired, I feel like we're all in the same clique. The sentiment is probably not too far removed from tribalism.
  • At parties in general, or when one has an introduction from a common aquaintence, there seems to be the assumption that the mutual friend has already checked you out. Consequently, people you meet this way are usually friendlier and more trusting that they otherwise would be.
  • At the other end of the trust spectrum, there's the problem of meeting someone when walking down a dark street at night. A while ago I was working late at the office downtown. Around nine o'clock in the evening, I finally finished me work and left the office. It was quite cold, so I was walking quickly, hoping to get into the relative warmth of the subway station as soon as possible. I took a shorcut through the churchyard of Adolf Fredriks Kyrkan to save a bit of time. Ahead of me there was a woman walking in the same direction, but more slowly than I. As I sped up a bit to pass her, she suddenly stopped and braced herself, as though she expected me to attack her. She seemed positively terrified of me! I was shocked by her reaction, but I wasn't really sure that she was in fact afraid of me. Maybe she was in pain and needed help. I didn't know what to do. Anyway, I just kept walking. I figured that I would scare her even more if I stopped or spoke to her.
  • Similarly,it has happened several times that a woman walking the opposite direction has crossed the street so as not to meet me. I don't think I look particularly scary, but my black overcoat and cowboy hat might give some people the wrong impression. A friend told me that a simple "good evening," really helps in situations like this. Don't stop, don't say more than that. Just say "good evening" and keep walking. She explained that this puts her at ease an reassures her that the stranger walking past is friendly and not threatening.
    I'm not a woman, so I guess I can't really understand this fear. But I can empathize. I'll try to remember to say "good evening" from now on.
  • Another time, I was on a bus on my way to go dancing. There was a girl sitting across from me and we dutifully ignored one another because we were strangers. It felt awkward when we both got off the bus at the same time and walked to the same salsa club. We had acted like complete strangers, but we had something in common after all! As we danced, I mentioned that I had seen her on the bus but didn't know she was also going to the club. We both laughed at the fact that we had previously regarded each other with indifference.
  • Sometimes, one is thrown together with another person by fate. Maybe you stop to help someone change a tire. Or you get stuck in an elevator. People you normally would never have met are suddenly there, and you have a reason to meet them. It's not that you or they are any different that when you pass one another on the street. Only circumstances are different.
As I think about these experiences and try to synthesize them into a common thesis, I am struck by how important context is to guaging the intentions of others. The stranger seems less strange if he or she is relatively similar to you. A common interest, background, language, or friend can be evidence for such similarities. And there are surely plenty of people out there who are dissimilar enough to us that we would normally not choose to spend time with them. Still, it's often circumstances and not the characteristics of the person that determine whom we meet.

Food for thought on a cloudy day.

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