Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers

 By Father Patrick O'Shea - Lower Hutt


One of the sayings of Saint Columban is that “a life unlike your own may be your teacher”. We do not know whether this notion was part of his motivation for leaving Ireland and going to Europe in the first place or whether it was a conclusion he came to after his experiences there. Either way he touches on something that has impelled people down the ages to travel beyond their local area – a desire to meet people who are different and learn from them.  

One of the most noticeable things about our world is that it is marked by a marvellous diversity. This is true at all levels, Human beings are a single species but one with a great diversity of languages, cultures, customs, and creeds.  We know that where people live – in the mountains of the Andes, or the rice growing valleys of the Philippines or the rainforests of Brazil or on Pacific islands like Fiji - the environment shapes much of the lives, the languages and the culture of the people who live there. We travel not only to meet strangers but to see where they live and how their environment shapes them.

There is much to learn from experiencing how other people deal with life - how they mourn and celebrate, how they interact with their children and their elders, what are the central values in their society and how are these are communicated, celebrated and passed on from generation to generation. When I was learning Cebuano in the Philippines, I was constantly intrigued by how that language is constructed. There are, for example, a host of little words that have no meaning as such but have the very important function of softening how what is said sounds. In a culture that values smooth interpersonal relations, this makes a big difference. Yes, there is a great deal to be learned from talking to strangers, especially in their language.

However, the notion of “stranger danger” has been introduced into conversations over the past few years to help protect children as we became aware of the prevalence and danger posed by paedophiles. More recently, Covid-19 has resulted in a policy of social distancing – of keeping strangers and even family and friends at a safe distance. Although these are necessary measures short term, one wonders what long term effects it might have on how we interact with others.  Will it teach us to be suspicious of all strangers and lead to greater isolation from people who are not like us?  Will we stop learning from lives that are different from our own?

In this context I read an article on the BBC website on “the Surprising Benefits of Talking to Strangers’. The article makes the point that

“humans are inherently social animals, who are made happier and healthier when connected to others. Feeling isolated and lonely, in contrast, is a stress factor that poses a health risk comparable to smoking and obesity.”  

The article looks at a belief that many people share - strangers are not interested in or open to being engaged in conversation. This is sometimes true; many people want to be left alone and send out signals that tell us so. But the article quotes research which shows that we consistently underestimate how positively people respond when a conversation is initiated.  I was in Wellington City the day after I read the article and was especially conscious of my own positive response when strangers addressed me. I wondered if reading about the positive benefits of talking to strangers had changed something in me that meant I was not giving out my usual “I want to be alone” signals and these people had somehow picked up on that change.  

The Trinity

There is also a strong biblical precedent for talking to strangers. Hebrews 13:2 says “remember always to welcome strangers for by doing this some people have entertained angels without knowing it”.  We see this played out in the story of Abraham and Sarah who welcomed and showed hospitality to 3 strangers and learned from them that they would have a child in their old age. The book of Exodus says “You must not oppress the stranger; you know how a stranger feels, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex 23:9).

I am hoping that the words of St Columban, an awareness of the social benefits and the endorsement of scripture will encourage us to continue to talk to and learn from the strangers we meet.