Treat Strangers Like Friends

  Lake Kivu

Lake Kivu with two strangers-turned-friends: Andy and Karin.

Everyday, I get the same three things for breakfast: a cup of yogurt, a plate of fruit, and an unwarranted compliment from Francine: the lunch-lady checker.

“Oh my, Stephen. Your running shoes look so handsome today.” Ah. Breakfast. The greatest meal of the day. And yet, for the first few weeks of school, I dreaded seeing Francine each morning. You see, swiping in for a school meal is often a painfully anonymous affair. You walk in with a dozen students, wait quietly in a line, and then, when it is your turn in the front, you’re processed by a checker. No questions. No exchange. No interaction needed. And things would have stayed that way with me and Francine, if I hadn’t accidentally asked her that fateful question. “Do you have a favorite muffin?” Now, to be fair, that question was originally intended for the guy holding muffin-tops to my right. But as he swiped and turned to grab a tray, the question hung in the air unanswered. Until finally, it landed on Francine. She took it well. The first of our many pre-breakfast exchanges began with a conversation about the perfect baked blueberry - but the conversations grew from there. Everyday at 9:20 AM, I’d find myself in front of her, id card in-hand, ready for our daily check-up: Her grandson just started preschool! No, I didn't have a girlfriend. She’s crocheting a small blanket! No, I still did not have a girlfriend. And so slowly, the stranger lunch-checker  became  Francine - my friend with a strange obsession for poppyseed. Now, at this point, I think it’s important to step back to think about the prompt:  “treating strangers like friends”. A reasonable question to ask is “did I get any benefit from having Francine as a friend?”. And to this question, tangibly I’d have to say no.  I still had to go through the card swipe every time. And sadly, we never developed a secret wink for an underground Sriracha exchange. No, I didn’t get any real favors from Francine. But, every time I went in for a meal, I didn’t have to swipe my card anonymously, I got to hang-out with a friend/defacto Mom. And that’s why you should treat strangers like friends. Not because you expect anything in particular out of them, but because doing so makes your and their world  a bit warmer. For every grocery bagger, security guard, or cafeteria worker you treat as a friend, you’re not trying to find a life-long companion; instead, you’re making your own corner more familiar, kinder, and all around happier to live in. But, how do you transition this thought into a reality? How do you really treat a stranger like a friend  Clearly, your conversations will be slightly different from one with a friend;  it is, of course,  more difficult to ask meaningful questions to someone you don’t know much about. Nonetheless, the principles of treating a friend well - listening, caring, asking questions - still hold true. Often simply asking for someone’s name early in a conversation, as a waiter comes to ask for your order for example, can change the dynamic of how both of you approach the other.  There are a lot of ways to think about doing it, and if you want some more resources on how to do it best (etc.) check out the tinybuddha blog here. There are certain situations however, where it is particularly difficult to follow this advice. Here in Rwanda, I’ve often struggled to treat people fairly when we don’t understand each other (in terms of language). And so it’s often been easy - even felt good - to get frustrated, and release my frustration on others (I am so sorry Mr. Barbershop Man. I did not want a flat top). This, of course, isn’t unique to my situation; frustration is common in any context.  There will always be people we interact with who misunderstand what we want, who seem to exert little effort, or are not too cheerful themselves. In all of these contexts,  it is understandable to not go out of your way to greet them warmly. But, "treating strangers like friends" is as much about making others’ world better as much as it is about changing your own. So here’s my challenge for you. For the next week, whenever you see someone new, remind yourself to treat them exactly as you would a close friend. And if this at first feels hard, remember that friends don’t need to be endlessly witty, or entertaining - they just need to be there and to ask a few questions. What’s you’re name Mr. Stranger? Where are you from? Do you have a favorite.. baked good?

*inspired by Tynan's "Treating Strangers Like Friends"