The Company We Keep

We spend a lot of time around strangers: on our commute, at the store, waiting for a friend on the street corner. While strangers rarely speak or touch, merely observing a stranger’s gestures and interactions can help us to redefine our own interactions with our closest friends and family.

A figure standing on a sky bridge

As social creatures, we spend a lot of time in the community of other people. We share our homes with quirky roommates, beloved spouses, or rambunctious children, who ensure that our dwellings are never filled with silence for too long. Co-workers pop their heads around door frames or over the short partitions of cubicles, peppering us with questions for paper clips or seeking off-the-cuff brainstorming sessions. Grocery store lines and drugstore aisles require weaving and shimmying past the individual with the overflowing cart or children reaching for snacks to toss into their parent’s shopping basket. Whether you inhabit a dense metropolitan block, or a rolling acreage of shrubs that spill out of your expansive front yard onto a rarely-traveled gravel road, life is often grounded by your interactions with the people around you. Our daily verbal exchanges create habits and schedules just as often as they disrupt the most carefully-laid plans.

The moments spent in the company of family and friends can be described as treasured and precious; once over, they exist only in our memories. As we grow from tottering toddlers to ambitious young adults, the conversations and experiences shared with our most intimate acquaintances mold our points of view, our perceptions, and how we think we fit into the world. Sometimes, however, when the presence of dear ones becomes a little too stifling to bear, we crave time away, without their nagging, or their reminders, or their exasperating habits. This is when dreams of solitary beach getaways and unaccompanied hikes through uninhabited forests are most tempting. In order to recharge, we crave time away from people and life as we know it.

There is another way to change pace and readjust the repetitions of life, other than climbing into a tent in the middle of the mountains or floating in an expanse of empty sea. Spending an hour in the company of complete strangers can also re-calibrate our frazzled internal barometers. Sound counter-intuitive? After all, at a time when you need peace and time to think, a crowded, bustling café or a lively, cacophonous park may sound like the last place to recuperate. However, the chance to observe or banter with strangers provides abundant opportunities to rediscover the joys of social interaction. Instead of jogging down a secluded forest path, go for a run past the playground of gleeful schoolchildren released from the confines of stuffy classrooms, and you might end up in an impromptu 50-yard race against an elementary school boy on a bike. “I can win, I can wiiinnn!” he crows, as he furiously pumps his legs and sends the bike flying ahead. Slip into a museum gallery of milling, curious onlookers, then stand with the crowd gazing at a large Renaissance-era panel painted delicately with tempura, and you might overhear bits of conversation. “Look at those faces!” the old woman beside you exclaims to her friend, as she carefully points a finger at the painting, “They look so skeptical.” Even though the picture before you was painted centuries ago, it is remarkable that the artist, this stranger, and you yourself share the same idea, despite having no relation with one another.

What is it about being in the presence of strangers that is so different from being in the company of someone we’ve discovered both inside and out? Being in the company of strangers is not unlike cracking open the pages of an excellent book or watching the frames of a well-directed movie. As a reader or a member of the audience, we are outsiders intruding on the scene. As the story develops in a few short sequences, we begin to feel as if we know the characters, despite having met them only a few moments ago. Why is this? Part of it must come from being able to relate to their humanness: the heartbreak they feel at being left alone, or the anxiety they feel about a new place or job or boyfriend. Their expressions are reflected on our faces, and the train of their thoughts sidles alongside our own. Sometimes, the ability to comprehend the reactions of others is easier to do in the presence of a person we don’t know than when we are sitting directly across from a close relative or friend.

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