What Do We Think Of When We Meet People?

It’s always interesting meeting strangers on the street. It can be exciting. Awkward. Maybe a little scary.

The other afternoon I was taking photos of Federation Square in the city, minding my own business.

“Excuse me? Can you take a photo of me?”

"Hi". "Hello" Words that are perceived differently by different people we meet | Weekly Photo Challenge: Perspective.

“Hi”. “Hello” Words that are perceived differently by different people we meet | Weekly Photo Challenge: Perspective.

I turned around. The summer-in-autumn sun shone right into my face. Eyes squinting, I made out a tall, dark-skinned guy towering over me, compact camera in hand. Why are you looking at me? Why are you coming towards me? Right. Photo.

“Sure!” Smiling, I took the camera from him. He took a few steps back and stood still. Silence. Does he want a full or half body shot? Portrait? Landscape? Oh well. I snapped a shot of him against the backdrop of Melbourne’s iconic Flinders Street Station.

Surprise, wonder, uncertainty. That about sums up the first few seconds of bumping into a complete stranger. We look each other in the face. Then in the eyes. Then most likely we will lock eyes for at least a split second and feel a tingle down our spine. As I handed the camera back to him, I noticed the card dangling around his neck said SBS. National media. So he works there.

“I used to intern at SBS,” I said, still smiling.

“Oh really?” the guy replied cheerily. “Which department?”

If we don’t hate each other’s guts at first sight and run the other way, the next few minutes with a stranger promise to be a mixed bag of emotions and thoughts. The guy and I chatted about SBS Radio, studies and work. From the way you look and talk in that flat and neutral tone, it seems like you’re from Africa. Hmmm. Are you? Turns out he hails from Sudan.

“I’ve never been to Africa,” I said.

“You should go to Africa someday. Experience the culture.” We chatted a bit more about where we’re from.

Past exchanging formalities, there comes a point where we become curious about the stranger in front of us. Curious about their background. Their home. Lifestyle. Do we get intrigued by the colour of their skin and accent and make assumptions about our new acquaintance based off these? It’s hard not to notice their appearance and how they sound, even if they look and sound the same as us, isn’t it? Do we ever just listen to what they have to say as just…another person? Another person who has hopes, tribulations and dreams just like us?

“You know, you never said ‘Where’s that’ when I said I’m from Sudan,” the Sudanese guy mused. Huh? I’m easy to talk to? Approachable? What? He extended his hand and I gripped it. Firm five-second handshake. So didn’t see that cominghell. “Take care, sister.”

It’s hard to guess what will happen when we come face to face with someone we don’t know by chance. But I guess that’s the beauty of meeting someone for the first time. As Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious”.

You never know what you can learn from them.

What runs through your mind when you bump into a stranger?

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35 thoughts on “What Do We Think Of When We Meet People?

  1. Seemed like a good encounter? My mind and brain likely spins to find sth to talk when I first meet strangers. I don’t know how to give a small talk that leads to other topics so I tend to avoid that kind of situation as much as I can. Yet, I’m not afraid to look into their eyes or observe their lives when travelling. I think when we go on trips, usually in other countries, some of us might let our guards go because we’d like to learn about other cultures/societies. That’s what I think.

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    • My encounter with the media guy I would say is a good encounter. Not everyone on the streets wants to chat and are usually sullen faced. Every time I have a day off from work and go out, I’m usually very happy and smile a lot. Funny how so many people don’t smile back. Like you, I struggle with small talk too but I think we learn so much more if we try to put ourselves out there.

      Interesting you say you like to look at others when traveling to learn about their cultures. Usually when I’m in a new place I prefer looking at scenaries and buildings. Maybe I should give people-watching a shot 🙂

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  2. I am more a person who tries to escape such situation. I can’t really explain why but usually I have the feeling that I need to hurry nad just want to mind my own business so any kind of disturbance is annoying for me.
    However in case of a person asking me directions or information I give it without problems and I don’t feel annoyed by it. It seems it always depends for me on the situation the other person is in (or something like that, I cannot really explain it)

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    • Yeah, it really does depend on the situation. If someone where to approach me at night, I would usually feel the need to move on quickly. Wouldn’t even think of stopping to chat with someone even if they looked friendly. I think you’re being polite when you say you’re minding your own business. Some people are very private people and would appreciate it if a stranger isn’t being too nosy.

      I don’t know why but I tend to get a wee bit nervous when I tell people directions. Sometimes I get confused by what they’re saying and this completely throws me and makes me look like an unapproachable freak 🙂

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  3. I suppose it is difficult at times to gauge the intention of the stranger approaching you. I recall when I went to South Africa sitting at the hotel restaurant. One of the guests, a black South African decided to sit on my table, though there were many free tables. I felt awkward but to overcome the awkwardness I initiated a conversation. The man who was lawyer had been chosen to become a judge confessed that he wanted to see what kind of person I was. He had experienced that some people – particularly from the Northern Hemisphere- were disinclined to talk to him. He was appreciative that I was not like that. I on the other hand learned more about South Africa then I could’ve…by simply talking to the people…

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    • It is always difficult to guess someone else’s intentions, especially if you don’t know anything about them at all. It really doesn’t hurt to be wary when a random person walks up to you and starts talking to you. For all you know, they have an accomplice nearby who might frisk you of your wallet or bundle you up into a car! Better safe than sorry. But sometimes I guess people are just interested in talking, being chatty and nothing more. That sounds like a very interesting conversation you had with the South African. He sounded like a happy chappy. I hope you didn’t feel creeped out when he said he wanted to suss out what kind of character you had!

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  4. Pingback: Weekly photo challenge – Perspective – Araneae |

  5. Mabel, this engaging post and your blog seem the perfect fit for the RACE that’s underway (info on my front page). You’re welcome to share your experiences and insights on my platform, if you’d like. I’d be happy to promote your blog.

    Cheerleading your way.

    HW

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    • Thanks, HW. I’ve had a look at RACE on your blog. I think it’s great that you’re running something like this, and you’ve put out some interesting questions there. Will definitely think about participating and thanks for reading!

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      • The story of my own bicultural experiences that I launched the series with is longer than I’m asking of others. Well, bc it’s my blog LOL. Just email me your answers in the next wk or two if you’d like to share your journey with my readers. No obligation, though. Thrilled to have connected.

        Diana

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        • Thanks, Diana. I did notice your story on RACE was a bit of a read, but so worthy of a read about cultural experiences and observations. So raw and engaging, straight from the heart. It was great Saturday night reading for me. Great to have come across your blog, it’s always nice hearing from those with similar interests and stories 🙂

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          • You really made yourself right at home. =) It’s a special group here, articulate and responsive, and (talk about belonging LOL) you fit right in. Your writing is just lovely. Keep it up.

            And I am grateful for the feedback bc I have not considered this miniseries on my life story among my best in terms of the writing. I would never have thought it raw or engaging. We hold a mirror up for one another out here. It is precious we can help one another in the blogging, esp when we’re sharing meaningful parts of ourselves.

            Bear hug,
            Diana

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    • Hahahaha Dedy: when I used to work in the dentistry sector, I used to look at everyone’s teeth too 🙂 Now I work with hair products so now I look at everyone’s hair!
      Mabel: yeah thats what happens when you work in a sector that works with ONE body part in mind 🙂

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      • Hahahaha! The both of you are hilarious! I used to work in a sector where I looked at and examined body language. At one point whenever I met someone, I would look all over their body, checking out each body part. I’m sure a lot of people whom I met saw my wandering eyes, how embarrassing. And you know what, I still do this quite a bit too 🙂

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    • I used to fear strangers, fearing they would rob me or stab me in the back. I guess that was because growing up in a dodgy part of Malaysia, I’ve always been told to watch my back, don’t carry a bag outdoors and never go anywhere alone. Of course, we all have to be the slightest bit wary when we come across strangers – who knows what tricks and intentions they have up their sleeve? Today I’m inclined to think that most strangers I met mean no harm and yes, there’s so much to learn from them.

      Love the post you shared. Such an inspirational man and so happy you got to meet him. Must be a great story to listen to.

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  6. The chance meetings of strangers where we end up having a nice conversation/connection is great…much like the Sudanese who asked you about taking a photo. Great little experiences in life, and I think they are great. Love the Einstein quote “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious”

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