Who are strangers? How do they relate to us and the way we perceive the world? As I was sitting in my racial and ethnic relations class at college, learning about the different groups people organize themselves in, categorizing others in terms of gender, race, age, social class, and so many other terms, I began to realize that people need a sense of identity. We cannot truly understand who we are until we are able to identify ourselves as a part of something greater. It is what sociologists would term as the “in-group,” people sharing similar interests and attitudes, producing feelings of solidarity, community, and exclusivity. Every individual has her own group, everyone else who is not considered a part of the group is placed beyond it, into the “out-group,” which is generally considered inferior or alien; a group perceived as other than one's own. This is where in-group bias comes from.
There are now seven billion people in the world. With such an overpowering number of human beings, how could we not classify them? It helps us sort through the overwhelming unknown. While I understand the necessity of sorting through the masses, developing an identity for ourselves and determining what group we belong, I also know there are severe drawbacks. History shows how we often forget we are all members of the same human race. Despite our differences, we are more similar than we realize.
Yet, even within groups there is an apparent need to distinguish ourselves from what is known and what is unknown, beginning with the people closely in contact with us. The other students in my classes, the workers in the DC, the professor I’ve never taken a course from, and most of my 767 friends on Facebook, are what journalist Melinda Bau and Purdue University professor Karen L. Fingerman would label as “consequential strangers.” The term describes people who do not belong in the mass of unknown faces we define as strangers, and yet who cannot be distinguished as friends. Time did an interview with Bau, asking her what was so significant of these consequential strangers that surround our lives. She explains how we tend to see our intimates as the people who are most important to us. Yet, it is apparent in both the workforce and our personal lives that the newest, most profound ways we understand the world, the most innovative circumstances we find ourselves, are due to the “people on the periphery.” There is no doubt that the people who are outside the center of our relationship circles are very different from ourselves, yet they are the ones who inspire us the most, influence our new ideas, and push us outside of our comfort zones. However, because of these differences, these are also people we would put into a separate category than ourselves, they are not like us, they are strangers, they are the “other.”
A few questions begin to form in my mind: what determines the boundary of groups? Where is the line between a consequential stranger, a friend, and an intimate relationship? Maybe the obvious answer is how we interact with them. Strangers become less strange the more we learn about their identity, and how it relates to our own. At some point in time, everyone outside our family was considered strange to us.
I used to think that how I interact with a person is based a lot on what I know about them. However, there are things that factor in as well, such as the location. A featured article in the American Scientist, written by Robert Levine, explains how, after extensive social experiments and applied research, it was apparent that people from New York City are more willing to offer help when they know there will not be any further contact in the future. They will meet their social obligation in the moment, but nothing more. Yet, in other cities such as Rio, Levine states that, “It often seemed to us that human contact is the very motive for helping.” The article goes on to explain how investigators have discovered that, “seemingly minor changes in situation can drastically affect helping—above and beyond the personalities or moral beliefs of the people involved.” According to these studies, it is also important to note that the place we grew up in does not influence our actions toward strangers as much as the location we currently live. In other words, Levine explains, “Brazilians and New Yorkers are both more likely to offer help in Ipanema than they are in Manhattan.” Apparently, it is not so much our moral character or upbringing that determines whether or not we are willing to help a stranger, it depends more fully on the location we are in. How then can we apply this to what we know (or do not know) about strangers? Even our attitude toward them changes from place to place.
Our actions toward strangers are unpredictable, and yet our lives are completely dependent on them. A new report from the National Institute for Safety Management claims that, on any given day, the average American's life is entrusted to more than 2,000 different people who are complete strangers. The report interviewed Jacob Drummond, a spokesman for NISM, who explains, "Of course, the 2,000 people responsible for your daily survival are themselves counting on another 2,000...all members of your city, state, and national government, and all the individuals they don't know personally, it's more like 4 million people wielding enormous power over your continued existence." That’s a lot of people we have never met, all of which we owe our life to. I have experienced a taste of this at my university. All of the positions filled by the faculty, staff, and students that culminate the community make life on my campus possible. From the janitors, to the donors, to the builders and contractors, to the admission representatives, all the way to businessmen, web designers, and the copy girl; hundreds, if not thousands of people influence my life at college every day. Yet, for all the influence strangers have on my life, I still find myself closed off to them. I tend to be resistant in seeing them as anything but the out-group, the unknown, those to be avoided.
In an article from Freakonomics, the columnist, Stephen Dubner, states we should actually be more afraid of the people we know rather than total strangers. Statistics suggest that there are more tragic events such as murder, abduction, and rape committed by people the victim knows rather than complete strangers. Yet the fact remains that we tend to fear strangers more. One reason for this, Dubner explains, is that our brains store memories that impact us most. Incidents that are big, rare “black swan” events are the memories that are retained in the mind. As a result, we are more afraid of things that seem absurd and unprecedented, like a terrorist attack or mad cow disease, rather than more common things that are less exciting but more likely to happen, such as a heart attack. For this reason, we fear strangers more. Yet, strangers do not deserve the fear and avoidance that most people impose on them. Strangers are most often poorly judged.
With all the influence strangers hold, it should not surprise us that they are in no way a new phenomenon. The conflicts in our world, both historical and present, are largely due to the misconstrued concept of the other. When we are absorbed by the differences in others, we have a need to set boundaries that give a sense of solidarity in groups. When someone does not meet this criteria, we not only become jealous of the differences, but deem these differences, in certain cases, as immoral or unacceptable. In other words, while strangers often have a positive impact on us in the way that they influence our thoughts and personal growth, there is a competition between us. We have an innate need to find a sense of self; we use others in order to base our identity and distinguish ourselves apart from the rest.
Psychologically, we classify our world into two categories that grow and shrink over time: what is known and what is unknown. Throughout life we are faced with choices, whether to embrace the unfamiliar in order to understand it and experience its strangeness, or reject it entirely and view it as completely separate and untouchable. The “other,” in the sense of a foreigner, is really only a different concept of self. We can only see the foreigner when we see something that cannot be connected to ourselves, and we cannot see them when we understand that we ourselves are foreign. In other words, we must accept the fact that we are strangers. Each of us are strange in relation to another group of people. Once we can finally admit to this concept, and understand that perhaps the stranger is not strange from another perspective, we become the stranger, and the stranger becomes a part of us. We will see people, not by our differences, but by our similarities.
Strangers often make their way in and out of our lives without our notice; yet everything we do, down to what we wear and the meals we eat, are influenced by someone we have never met. Perhaps one day we will appreciate our dependence on each other. As I walk down the sidewalk of my college, throwing the hood of my coat over my head and stuffing my hands deep inside my pockets, bracing against the cold, it is easy to put my head down, avoiding eye contact with those passing by. They are most often people I do not know; they may not look like me or share any mutual interests. Yet, I have more in common with them than I realize. I depend on them, in some obscure way. Directly, or indirectly, the universal human race is connected. Although we compete against one another for land, resources, power, and so much more, although we have killed each other in the past, slaughtered entire people groups, abused one another, ignored, avoided and hated one another, we still are one unit, one common race. At the end of all the segregation and solidarity, the name-calling and classifying, despite my fears and apprehension, my sincere hope is that someday I will be able to truly see the stranger in myself and myself in every stranger.
Dubner, Stephen J. “The Cost of Fearing Strangers.” Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of
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Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Print.
Levine, Robert. “The Kindness of Strangers.” American Scientist. The Scientific Research
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