Maybe I just have a face that makes people think I’m non-judgmental or a good listener, but random folks have always gravitated toward entering into open discussions with me. I’ve chatted casually about everything from asinine weather opinions to in-depth conversations about addiction histories or mental illness. Personally, I welcome the shoulder shake out of my daily routine and the fascinating humanization of people I wouldn’t otherwise notice beyond a casual glance.
What is it about the people we meet that leaves such a lasting impression on who we are and how we view the world?
In some ways, meeting new and strange people reminds us internally of our utmost biases and prejudice. We look at a person and based on their gender, affectations, clothing, hair style, height, and other arbitrary characteristics, our mind creates relational preconceptions. They’re low class. They’re high class. They’re intelligent, dirty, clean, high maintenance, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, sexually open or frigid. It takes active awareness to stop these notions from instantly forming and instead try to view people on a purely empirical basis.
It’s like when you’re reading a book and character, upfront, is entirely a villain. You see their actions through the main character’s eyes and you make snap judgments about their character and worth. You assume that they’re a concentrated ball of pure evil instead of a human being. It is only later in the novel when their motivations are revealed that you begin to see a fully-formed perspective of the person and understand why they are the way they are.
This concept is something I’ve struggled with in my life. I’ve always considered myself a fairly progressive person and above the trappings of misogyny and racism, but many people have caught me in casual conversation exhibiting signs of that kind of behavior and mindset. While veiled in humor or satire, in my own mind, you do not control the way others perceive your words. While to you these things may seem harmless or goofy, to others they could be painful reminders of a society that institutionalizes their outsider status.
I don’t speak jokes with maliciousness, but intent does not matter. What matters is that the eyes and ears perceiving these utterances have their own interpretations and it’s important to understand that words truly do matter. I’m a proponent of free speech in all avenues, but free speech does not simultaneously mean free of consequence. There is a ripple effect to any ideas and assumptions made publicly, whether in the negative or positive sense. This is something to keep in mind when meeting and speaking to new groups of people.
Just recently, I’ve met some interesting characters since my commute has shifted from the weekly travel schedule of a professional consultant to a daily Philadelphia commute via the regional rail transit system. Each day brings new surprises and new people and I’ve had both valuable and forgettable experiences in that space.
There was the man who works for Septa and was taking the late train home with me on a night that I had met some friends in the city for dinner. He looked like Herschel from the Walking Dead, prior to his amputation. Based on his dirty clothes and disheveled look, my brain wanted to paint him into a corner as a grunt worker with no college education. Visual cues are so inaccurate, though. He was a computer engineer who had designed entire systems and infrastructure for the company and had a brilliant mind that loved to talk. We had a great conversation before parting ways and I was left feeling good about our interaction.
I met a young woman on the train who looked like a hippie. She sported a t-shirt with moons on it to match the tattoo on her arm and cut-off jeans. She was a brilliant and positive mind who had gotten a full-ride scholarship to Penn’s business school. She talked of the positive outlook of her life philosophy and how much she loved meeting and talking to new people. She wanted to be an entrepreneur and open up a cannabis dispensary in Pennsylvania.
There’s also the barista at work who was celebrating his 21st birthday and wanted me to follow his drag persona Instagram. His friendly demeanor and personable attitude causes many people in my building to talk to him every day at length.
In each of these scenarios, I was going about my daily mundane business in typical fashion and fell into conversations with new and interesting people who I appreciated meeting. Whether I never see them again or they become somewhat regular fixtures of conversation, it’s worthwhile having met them. If I succumbed to the pitfalls of prejudice and being closed off from interpersonal interactions, I would have missed out on the experiential spontaneity of good conversation.
Even if the conversation comes from a dark place and the person just needs to vent, it’s important to be objective and listen once in awhile. Sometimes people just need an ear. You may be the only person that they interact with in their daily life. You don’t know how many people you could be saving from a bad day or a place of intense despair. You may be preventing someone’s loneliness.
Stop putting up walls and start trying to exist together. We only have so long.