I stopped by the mall the over the weekend to pick something up. The mall is possibly one of the easiest places to find a room full of strangers—how could I say no? When it comes to interacting with strangers, I tend to keep consistent: I’ll acknowledge their presence, but I’m keeping to myself unless someone else approaches me. It’s as simple as that. Goffman (as cited in Hamblin, 2019) would probably tell me that I engage in “civil inattention,” acting civilized yet oblivious to those around me all at the same time, and I’d have to agreed. Mind you, I say “tend” because there is that odd time here and there where I step up and start the conversation but only once in a while. This moment was that once-in-a-while.
My F2F interaction: Hamblin was right
So, I reach the front of the line, and one of the associates at the till waves her hand up with a big customer-service smile on her face, signaling me to come forward. Now, I don’t know what compelled me to do this, but I said “Hi” in return with a big customer-service smile on my face. The rest of the conversation included the typical, “Would you like the receipt in the bag?” So on and so forth. But I said “Hi” first and that is what I’m more interested in. I’m no scientist, but I think Hamblin (2019) was really getting at something when he noted that once we consider someone known or familiar, our behaviour towards them changes… but why? Why and how does a wave and a smile equal familiarity?
I can’t say for certain that my openness to conversation was a result of this interaction with the associate (again, I am no scientist), but my behaviour shifted from a keep-to-myself mentality. Note: I could easily have been putting up a front to make this stranger encounter pass by quicker. If I think about it like this, it’s like engaging in affective, or emotional, labour… but not as a labourer because I wasn’t exchanging my work power for wages. That is a completely different tangent for another day.
So, what is a stranger?
Even though I’m on ‘talking terms’ with the associate, is she still a stranger to me? Yes. I don’t know this person like I know my friends and family. I’ve said “Hi” to her once and that’s it. After this interaction, I would consider someone a stranger if I have only made a single—or a light handful—of interactions with them. I’ll most likely only see and interact with this person once or twice in my lifetime (as far as I know of). If I see the individual on a regular basis and know and refer to them by name, but our interactions don’t move beyond “Hi” and “Hi” back, I might be generous and call them an acquaintance.
Hamblin, J. (2016, August 25). How to talk to strangers IRL. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/08/civil-inattention/497183/