Hey, Stranger.

Antisocial Diaries, messy thoughts

Emma is the editor & creator (and occasionally writer) for The Messy Heads. She enjoys yellow curry, print media, and singing to herself.

Antisocial Diaries is an ongoing thread exploring the concept of connection in an age of constant connection. Written by Emma, currently living in New York City and without any social media.

How do you meet someone through no previous connection?

It’s all about who you know, you already know that. It’s taught in class and in every marketing book out there. It’s the reason why some people go to college or join clubs or make friends with the barista to get a free shot of espresso every so often. You are familiar with what you know, you trust it more. That’s why it’s easier to make friends with friends-of-friends, or follow someone first on social media and get comfortable enough with an image and persona of for you to consider them a confidant. In short: you find out about people and things through other people and things.

How do you make a connection based on no knowledge or previous background of a person? In most situations this middle ground is fertile for growing a connection. Any background knowledge just naturally clues you into what to talk about how how to behave with this person. But what about if you pull the ground out from under you?

Within a weekend I stuck up conversation with people on street corners and passing me by. I met: a savant getting ready to go into grad school at age 18, a wise New York native and ex-coke dealer (it was the 80s), a marketing strategist in-between business calls and dappled in dark circles, and a runaway crying in a red beret.

While each of them taught me a lot about life through their eyes, I learned a lot about listening. And how special it feels to connect with someone that you have very little in common with. Because as it turns out we really aren’t that different, everyone just wants to be seen and heard and understood.

Here’s what I saw, heard, and understood from fifteen minute to five hour conversations with these four compete strangers.

From the 18 year old savant, I learned that being in college when you are fifteen is pretty hard, but counting cards to calculate probability for Blackjack is pretty easy. Also, having a mind that relies on reason and rules can allow for confined creativity. For example, chess is a game of many rules, and thus it becomes a game of new ideas. Also, if given the chance, they would give up this mind to be able to have better relationships. Staring up at the ceiling, he asked me why girls don’t like him. I said it’s not about getting girls to like you, it’s about finding one person who is understanding. He didn’t understand why I wouldn’t sleep with him.

The next day I woke up off of a four hour sleep, 5 am til 9, and needed a coffee. I crossed paths with someone else who needed one as well, finishing a phone call that seemed to be about something stressful, as indicated by sighs and words that I knew but couldn’t define. As the phone call ended, I asked what it was about. We ended up getting a much needed iced americano in a cupcake place where I learned about being a media strategist and how media tricks, influences, and changes all of us. I sipped my coffee quickly, trying to keep up with the conversation. I learned that even executives have their vices, like winding down a river in a tube with a buddy and a beer, or doing a new drug to alleviate the stress of having to attend a rehearsal dinner for a rich San Francisco socialite. Also that even people who control media and money want to live outside of it, on some city in the Caribbean. I got a free coffee and this advice: get off your phone because someone else with a lot more money and power than you is deciding what you like, what you value, and what you perceive to be true.

From a corner off of the Lorimer stop, I stopped to stare at a giant, purple parade float protruding from a crowd. I was trying to piece together the scene when I noticed another person doing the same, but in a more seasoned way. Introducing: the New York native who told me that this was a festival held every year in this spot, and even though the’s not Italian he likes to come by and watch for a while. So we watch, the confetti going up in the air and kids on parent’s shoulders, smiling through the sound of the trumpets.

I learned about the pizza place behind us, how it had been there forever which was a mark of a good manager, someone who could evolve with the times. I asked about old New York, and heard stories of putting tokens in the subway machines to go up to 42nd, which was full of porn theaters, places to dance, and people ready to party. As the years went on, 42nd street put on a smiling, tourist-friendly mask, the streets got safer, and the subways got cleaner. New York used to be wild and risky, but worth it. They used to hang out in bodegas, drinking beers, only leaving to roll a joint on the side of the road, waving to passing policemen.

I heard about escapades as a drug dealer, and then with rehab, and now proudly sitting on a completely sober decade. Not even a cigarette. I asked what my generation was missing, the reply was an immediate: respect. We lack respect for not only our elders, our friends, our parents, but for ourselves. When I asked for advice, it was to never take the same road twice. Get off a stop early or a stop late on the subway, take a different route everyday. Pop into a different place. Don’t become a Friday regular anywhere, keep yourself on your toes. You stay young, you stay discrete, you stay sharp. I stayed on the corner mostly listening and sometimes talking for a good hour, even though I was supposed to be hosting a dinner down the street and was cradling wine in a brown bag in my arms.

And finally, just down the block from my house I was sitting and reading a book I had reread many times before, but still loved. Like a movie you watch over and over. In my happy place, I saw a sad face strolling by, wiping tears away with the back of a hand. I lept up and hugged them, and found out that they had just had their phone stolen, which completely ruined the first fall day of the year. I offered both my subway card and a companion to walk to the subway with. We talked about art and the possibility of a flip phone. I learned that when you leave a foreign country for NYC and can finally afford an apartment in Brooklyn it feels like you are on top of the world. I also learned that following your instincts and acting with compassion can turn someone’s worst day into one that makes them smile. And that we are all carrying struggles and could use a friend, even if that friend starts out as a stranger (so don’t be a stranger, be a friend).

We are connected to people passing by us through adversity, through life experiences, through pain and joy. We are connected by the sheer fact that we are all living this, weird confusing life (or that we both like copious amounts of black coffee). We have a lot more middle ground than we think, which might be scary to some, but certainly comforts me. I feel less alone knowing that I could strike up a conversation with someone who also needs connection. Someone who is just relieved as I am that all that stands between understanding and a stranger is a hello.

Who might you meet that lies behind an unfamiliar face?

22 Comments

  1. whoa, Emma. wish I was brave enough to reach out to people but I always get embarrassed and never know what to say. how do you do it?

    • I want to know too! I wish I could have these insightful and deep conversations with people I’ve just met!

  2. This is so beautiful. As someone that disappeared from all social media about a month ago, reading these pieces I see myself through your eyes. Your writing is so refreshing and I think that not having social media has influenced your content in a positive way. Again, love this.

  3. This was so beautiful Emma! I love this series so much. Can’t wait to read more!!

  4. This is incredible, I feel this post on so many levels. I have this urge to talk to strangers and make connections but I feel nervous to be disappointed by the outcome, forgetting that everybody (even if the interaction is negative) has something to offer to me and my personal growth, I just struggle to figure out how to get people talking, as I usually find myself talking more than others and when I don’t I find them unimpressed with who they are talking to and my need to be liked kicks in.

  5. chloe says

    loved this emma, you are so amazing, i love how you act and write and see things.

  6. I really want to try this there’s always something to learn from other people. I often wonder about the strangers I’m passing everyday on the street of I sit next to on the tube. I think about what kind of a person they are, what they love and where they work – I guess it would be easier to ask haha! Your interactions with those people are beautiful, especially the with the ex drug dealer. I don’t know why I really connected that what he told you.

  7. Love this article! A good reminder to get back out into the world and have faith in strangers as fellow human beings, thank you!

  8. loved it emma!
    every person is a teacher, beautiful. how did you approach these people?
    xx

  9. Marge says

    I think this is by far my favorite post yet! I am printing this and putting it on my wall! There is so much wisdom in this little piece! Thank you Emma

  10. Sofia says

    wow this is so pure and beautiful. i recently moved to paris alone without knowing a single soul here and have been feeling a little overwhelmed with the fact that i am all by myself. this really motivates me to strike up a conversation with a stranger. thank you. xx

  11. Bridget says

    So beautiful. wish I was confident/outgoing enough to reach out to strangers on the street like this.

  12. Eleanore says

    Every time I read a new article you write, I feel these transcending realizations and relation to your experiences. Reading your work has made me a better version of myself!

  13. I loved this! This reminds me of the time when I was crossing the street and this elderly lady went up to me and asked what was good to eat in the area. In exchange, she paid for me meal as I gave her company.

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