Meet Valeriya. Or rather, allow me to meet Valeriya.
She is blond, has a nice smile, and is around 5’7” (although it was hard to tell from my sat perspective). These were my first impressions of this stranger who approached me and my friend last Tuesday while we were grabbing coffee between classes. I feigned an alarmed expression as the chipper woman came up to us. I realized quickly that she was specifically approaching my friend, exclaiming usual greetings like “I haven’t seen you in ages!” and “How have you been?”. My friend, equally as excited to see her, replied quickly before introducing me into the conversation.
I would learn Valeriya’s name, and how she and my friend know each other. Almost immediately, we engage in Kio Stark’s “triangulation”, which refers to commenting on shared experiences and observations. I found out they shared a class together last semester, which led us down the classic path of SFU student introductions, famously repetitive but consistently dependable for first-time interactions. This entails more triangulation, specifically revolving around academics and campus experiences. We exchange majors, which happen to both be linguistics, easing us into a conversation about linguistics courses we are taking, and which professors we love or hate. Laughing at our shared opinions, I can’t help but enjoy Valeriya’s presence.
The casual conversation bounces between the three of us for a few minutes, and I am noticing Valeriya’s terrific eye-contact skills. I find that some people have trouble with eye-contact, whether they do too little or unbearably too much. Valeriya was able to maintain a comfortable balance between my friend and I which allowed the conversation to easily flow three-way, which I also commend her for, as three-way conversations are prone to be uncomfortable or exclusionary. After the conversation moved to each other’s plans for the rest of the day, Valeriya naturally excused herself, explaining how she had been on her way to class but stopped to briefly say hello. We all exchanged goodbyes, and Valeriya promised she would see my friend again soon.
I understood this, along with the explicit politeness and lack of depth in our conversation, as a shared acknowledgement between her and I that we will remain strangers. This is not meant to be a disappointing conclusion, or something I was not expecting. Hamblin believes that after speaking to a person, you know them, and henceforth your behaviour completely changes towards them to reflect who you really are. I disagree with this, because while I appreciated Valeriya’s kindness and humour in the moment, it feels unlikely that we had broken down any significant social barriers in such a brief interaction. I believe if we spoke again, it would resemble this first conversation in many ways. Sometimes, long-term connections can made from the most fleeting encounters– but sometimes not, which is okay too. After all, a short interaction with a stranger is beneficial regardless of whether anyone’s life trajectory is altered– it exercises one’s social skills, and acts as a casual way to learn more about people around you who may live similar lives.
These types of conversations differ from my online interactions, which often consist of liking, commenting, and messaging my closest friends on social media. I don’t tend to reach out to many strangers online, and when I do, I refrain from sharing anything too personal for safety reasons. Additionally, I find online interactions lack the politeness and start-to-finish format that real-life interactions have. When speaking to someone face-to-face, especially someone like Valeriya who I met through a mutual friend and goes to the same school, online safety precautions fall away and interlocutors are more open to a well-rounded conversation, which overall encourages a slightly deeper level of getting to know each other.
If I ever see Valeriya again, maybe we will bridge the gap between strangers and acquaintances. But, if I don’t, I am glad to have met her at all.
Dodd, A., & Watts, A. (2007). Gotta Go My Own Way [Recorded by Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron]. On High School Musical 2 [Soundtrack Album]. Walt Disney Records.
Hamblin, J. (2016). How to Talk to Strangers. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/08/civil-inattention/497183/