A big shout out to my Communication professor for making me talk to a stranger. And hopefully, for helping me make a new friend too.
Old Habits Die Hard
Because of my extreme fear of being late, I always make sure I arrive at least fifteen minutes early to each lecture. I would consider this habit of mine a pretty good one, except for the fact that my friends are almost never at school yet. This means that I walk into the lecture hall by myself and hope that my friends come in and occupy the empty seats beside me ASAP.
This Tuesday was no different. I arrived at the first lecture of my Communication class before everyone else, and as the seats filled up, a girl I had never seen before sat next to me. At first, I did what I always do when people I don’t know sit next to me. I ignored her. Turns out, this is a pretty common thing to do, a concept called “civil inattention” conceived by Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman. We sat next to each other in silence, basically pretending the other didn’t exist. I checked every app on my phone, scrolled through already-opened emails, and pretended to read the syllabus for all of my classes. I didn’t even once shoot a look at her.
Changing Things Up
A few minutes into our lecture, our prof told us we were to introduce ourselves to the people sitting next to us. So this is when I finally decided to actually acknowledge her presence. I learned that her name is Caitlin. At this point, Caitlin was no longer a stranger. Hamblin explains that once a person talks to a stranger, they’re now considered to be “known.” But more than that, I learned Caitlin’s name, and for me, that’s when I can confidently say that I “know” someone. From then on, I felt warmer and more comfortable around Caitlin.
So as we dove into our conversation, we “triangulated,” as Stark calls it, where we commented on things we were both observing, such as the fact that the prof was talking really fast, and our lack of excitement for the pop quizzes.
We asked each other questions about our majors, hometowns, and all of the small talk that usually takes place with classmate introductions. Caitlin is originally from Victoria and it’s her first year at SFU. She’s a transfer student from Camosun College and despite my assumption that she lives in the residences, she actually commutes from North Vancouver every day. She does want to try living on campus though, as do I.
Our conversation flowed organically and smoothly, and overall, I felt a lot more at ease in the lecture hall. Caitlin and I connected pretty well for the five minutes we had, and I felt she was a person I could look for when arriving at lecture, especially because my other friends are almost always late. During the lecture, we made little comments to each other about how we didn’t understand what the prof was saying, about how nervous we were for the closed-book midterm, and how warm it was in the lecture hall. It was nice having someone to confide in and confirm my worries about the class being too hard and the prof talking too fast.
Online Chatting: What’s Different?
In a world where many of my social interactions take place online, this exercise was pretty refreshing. When I’m texting people I don’t know too well, it’s always for a specific purpose, which usually involves school. I ask them a question about an assignment, they answer it, and then we pretend like we don’t know each other after that. The conversation usually starts with a single goal and ends when that goal is accomplished.
I attribute my disinterest in talking to people online to a lack of non-verbal cues, like smiling, laughing, or frowning, which really makes me feel connected to the person I’m talking to. Even though this stranger interaction was somewhat “forced,” I still felt like I got along so much better with Caitlin than I would’ve if the first time I interacted with her was in, for example, a class group chat. I would’ve gotten the information I needed and dashed. But when she was sitting right next to me, I got to see her genuine, real-time reactions to what I was saying, and that made me feel a lot closer to her.
Overall, I would call this exercise a success. Next time, I’ll muster up the courage to talk to a stranger without being forced to.
Hamblin, J. (2016, August 25). How to talk to strangers. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/08/civil-inattention/497183/
Lieberman, A, & Schroeder, J. (2020). Two social lives: How differences between online and offline interaction influence social outcomes. Current Opinion in Psychology, 15(3), 16-21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.06.022
De Schwanberg, V. (2016). Hands reaching towards each other [Photograph]. Fine Art America. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/hands-reaching-towards-each-other-victor-de-schwanberg.html