On every SEPTA ride home, I seem to converse with an interesting person: a student hiding from her parents, a stay-at-home dad with a diagnosed fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of his mouth and even a freelance clown heading for Levittown for a birthday party. My conversations have helped to pass time and have also taught me trapeze artist lingo and refreshed my knowledge on the symptoms of arachibutyrophobia.
I know it’s unsafe to talk to strangers. That’s a childhood lesson we’ve all had burned into our minds. The motto worked in childhood because our narrow worlds were limited to our classmates and our parents’ friends. As our world widens in our college years, the idea of “stranger danger” needs to modify its meaning as well. If we carry the idea unchanged into adulthood, we’ll miss out on getting to know interesting people.
One College freshman, Molly Ream, broadens the traditional definition of “stranger” to include anyone with whom she hasn’t had a conversation — not an uncommon construction of the term for Penn students.
As that definition would suggest, Penn students and faculty members who don’t know each other are strangers to one another because they haven’t met or conversed before. Yet, at the same time, we’re a Penn family.
However, sometimes we even treat each other as strangers do, maintaining distance. I have gotten my share of odd looks when I have taken seats opposite people that I have never met before and asked to eat lunch with them.
Kevin Lee, a postdoctoral student in the Classical Studies Department, confirmed this when I met him for the first time in the hot lunch line at Commons. “I am so surprised that you did that,” he remarked. “Never seen it — just came forward and started talking. I probably would just stand here because I don’t know you.”
Still, in my experience, a sort of appreciation follows the initial skeptical surprise, and I am willing to run the risk of causing awkward surprise if it means that I get to meet someone new and find one more familiar face. If we’re trying to foster a sense of community at Penn, why not try to meet all the members of Penn’s community by proactively initiating random conversations?
Granted, I’m weird. Most people agree that they do just “stand there” in long lines because small talk is either awkward or pointless because the chances of again meeting the person who is standing in front of you in line waiting for those Class of 2016 sunglasses are slim to none. With smartphones and text messaging, it’s even easier to avoid awkwardness — join the masses and wait in a bubble, checking messages on a screen. I’m guilty of it sometimes too.
I understand that some people are more introverted than others. But in not making the effort to begin a conversation, in labeling every unknown person with that childhood label of “stranger,” we are missing the opportunity to spread good feelings, learn something and meet someone new.
Speaking to this idea, Wharton freshman Ryan Hull shared a story in which he broke the barrier of awkwardness to find common ground with a security guard in Van Pelt who wore a cross like his own. “[It got us] talking about our Irish heritage,” says Hull, “It was cool … even though we didn’t know each other at all.”
I am not saying that we should go out and converse with abandon — there are true strangers that we should avoid, like the ones our parents warned us of when we were young. But most Penn students say that they have a gut feeling that warns them when someone is sketchy or untrustworthy and allow instinct to be their guide.
And most people we run into on Locust, Houston or probably even the person next to you on SEPTA aren’t these people — and we shouldn’t avoid them like they are. Any long wait or trip feels much shorter and more enjoyable when you let down your guard a little. In the adult world, we should work to make most strangers seem, at the very least, strangely familiar.
Divya Ramesh is a College freshman from Princeton Junction, N.J. Her email address is email@example.com. You can follow her @DivyaRamesh11. “Through My Eyes” appears every Monday.Comments powered by Disqus
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