Dunbar: By avoiding strangers, we rob ourselves of valuable opportunities

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Blair Dunbar, Columnist

A week or so ago, I was walking up North to pick up my car on Ridge Avenue. It had been raining earlier, so I was wearing my bright red raincoat. While walking, a middle-aged man with a strange limp complimented me on my coat.

I thought that would be the end of the conversation, but he somehow got on the topic of what “political” means and handed me his business card. I halfheartedly nodded as I talked and attempted to walk away from him. He finally said goodbye, and I hurried to my car, every so often taking a look behind me.

In hindsight, I think I overreacted. Most likely, the man was simply trying to be friendly, but as children we are programmed to be wary of strangers. Some of us become even more cautious when we arrive at Northwestern and constantly receive emails about robberies near campus.

There is a reason that NU students post fliers on the ground; that’s where our eyes are typically aimed. Sometimes we avoid talking to strangers not as a precaution but simply because we are too busy. There is also a reason why, if someone asks you how you are, you always say fine even if you aren’t. Through all this avoidance of strangers, I can’t help feeling like we are missing out on some potentially valuable interactions.

My mother is someone who will make conversation with anyone who is available. Whether she is walking the dog, shopping or having our house painted, she will inevitably be chatting with someone new. My boyfriend is much the same way. I remember walking with him down Sherman Avenue one afternoon when a man sitting outside the Unicorn Cafe started talking about NU football. While I most likely would have nodded and continued walking, he stopped and fully engaged the man. They talked about football and what NU’s prospects looked like for the year. His roommate also spent one afternoon talking to a few homeless men asking for change outside of the Howard CTA station.

There are so many times in life when we are forced to interact with new people. For college students, the obvious example is Greek recruitment. When you get older, you are bombarded with job and internships interviews. These are often rather intimidating. Yet we rarely take advantage of the daily practice available to us. Maybe interviews wouldn’t be as frightening if every so often we decided to strike up a conversation with the lady selling us a dress or the man taking his dog for a walk during the afternoon. Besides, you never know who that stranger might be.

One of my favorite stories from my stepmother is the time she was at the Westminster Dog Show with her sister and mother. Her mother was a dog breeder and trainer for many years. She and her sister were sitting backstage and there was an older woman sitting across from them. The three had a great time talking about the dog show. That older woman turned out to be Olympia Dukakis, a famous, Academy Award-winning actress.

Recently I have tried to be more like my mother. As I am checking out at a store, I try to wear a smile and ask how the person is doing. Just two weeks ago I was visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum. I ended up having two engaging conversations with two different strangers. One was a volunteer whose husband was a Holocaust survivor. The other was the man working at the front desk; I just decided to ask him what book he was reading.

I am not saying that we should throw out the lessons we were taught as children. If you are alone at night, it’s not necessarily a good idea to talk to someone in a dark alley. I’m just suggesting that sometimes talking to the person next to you in line might make time pass a little quicker.

Blair Dunbar is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].