There are 7.125 billion people living on the planet. And because most are labeled as strangers, we in turn behave as shy, frightened or suspicious people. To fight that inclination, Kio Stark emphasizes the importance of viewing a stranger as a specific person rather than as part of any category. Stark is the author of When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You, in which she shares how strangers can provide beautiful interruptions. It’s an easy enough idea, but many of us are so set in our ways—defaulting to being suspicious of others—that behaving otherwise may require going deeper.
FLIP THE SWITCH ON THE WORD ‘INDIVIDUAL.’
Strive to see “a person with a context we can try to understand and know, not a person with a set of labels attached to them that we use to try to understand them. It’s not that we should be blind to categories—the categories we use to navigate the world have tangible effects, and we should always be interrogating them—but we have to look deeper than that, to the individual.”
REJECT THE IDEA OF STRANGER DANGER.
“There are dynamics where circumspection is clearly necessary: For example, women can’t universally give the benefit of the doubt to men on the street, and black people are right to be very wary of law enforcement officials. Overall though, we have to reject the idea that anyone we don’t know is someone who is a threat to us until proven otherwise. Thinking that way—seeing people as threatening because we don’t know them—lays the groundwork for terrible bias and hatred. This includes all of us, even people who think of themselves as very open-minded and tolerant.”
BREAK DOWN THE WALLS.
“The more you deal with people as individuals, the less prejudice you have. And the less useful stereotypes become to you, the more you see that most people aren’t threatening. Again, the caveat here is that for some groups of people, there’s a historically solid reason for categorical circumspection. The other thing to remember is that while a positive interaction with someone who is different than you reduces prejudice, a negative one can increase it. And the negative experiences weigh more in this calculation. So this stuff really matters. It is so consequential.”
ALL IT TAKES IS THE ACT OF ACKNOWLEDGMENT.
“If you want to break the unwritten rule of civil inattention, there are things you can do. Smiling, nodding, saying hello to a stranger, getting into a conversation— these are moments of utterly temporary and deeply meaningful connection. We’re communicating the idea that we see each other; we acknowledge each other as fellow humans. The fact that it’s momentary doesn’t mean it’s not genuine. These are brief experiences that give us some of the same things that intimacy is made of: a sense of connectedness, of belonging, of being recognized as a person.”