Showing kindness to strangers: The risk-reward vibration

What it's like to depend on (and trust) strangers
By Melissa Gruenfeld  Published on 08/31/2017 at 11:00 AM EDT

[Photo source]

In the United States, we are taught from a young age not to talk to strangers. But everyone who knows me will tell you that I try to make a habit of smiling at pretty much everyone I encounter. If I am outside for longer than 10 minutes, I usually find myself talking to a someone I don’t know. And in those encounters, I try to begin with kindness.

I engage with strangers in part because I feel a huge debt to the universe. I owe it every ounce of positive energy I can muster, as repayment for the two months I spent making a film about relying on strangers for a home each night, and for the eight months after that I spent touring with that film and staying with strangers again.

This is not the kind of obligation I can square by handing dollar bills to buskers, or leaving large tips at restaurants, or buying a meal for the person in line behind me at the drive-through — although, doing those things does make me feel joy (so feel free to try them).

People don’t often expect kindness from strangers, so they treat kindness with suspicion. In 2013, together with a friend’s organization, I gave cupcakes away to strangers on the street as a kindness initiative — but people were skeptical. Why was I giving them something for free? Was there a catch? What did I want in return? In that situation, I had the power: I knew what my intentions were, I knew that I meant them no harm. I risked nothing, and had nothing to fear. I felt giddy, joyful and unwavering. They felt tense and afraid (which is really a disappointment, because I spent hours making homemade pennant flag toothpicks with kind sayings on them, to try and make the message clear).

But the power does not always have to be unbalanced.  Despite our cultural insistence on using the phrase “kindness from strangers” to describe any positive interaction with someone we don’t know, I believe a true act of kindness requires a balance of power.

Recently, on a walk, I was stopped by a man with a scruffy beard, long hair, a backpack on its last legs and an intense but sporadic gaze. Any woman who has ever walked alone will understand the hesitation I felt – although I consider myself to be an intersectional feminist who can take care of herself – I had a visceral reaction to being stopped by a stranger. Our minds may be open, but our bodies are vulnerable and exhibit conditioned responses when we are in unknown situations, where there may – or may not – be danger. (For instance, according to neuropsychological studies, facial hair scares us.)

Our interaction was very basic: he asked me for directions. As a new transplant to the LA area, I had to use my phone and the power of Google to help him. It was clear to me that he was familiar with the hesitations of strangers, and to alleviate my concerns, he showed me his phone, as if to say “don’t worry, I’m not that desperate.” He reached for my phone, tilting it to avoid glare from the sun, while I kept a firm grip — a instinct from traveling abroad that is both important and unfortunate.

He smiled at me, said thank you, offered up his hand in what I thought was a handshake and he thought it was a hug. And so suddenly I found myself being hugged by this stranger, both of us in the LA heat, my face pressing into his dreadlocks. He may have mistaken my kindness as an invitation to embrace. It was uncomfortable in the heat, but ultimately it was harmless.

He was supposed to go in the same direction as I was – I had pointed him that way. But he kept going up the hill. Maybe he thought the directions were wrong. Or maybe – and more likely –  he was aware of the fact that I was walking down the hill, and he didn’t want to scare me. He had taken the risk to ask a woman for directions, she had been kind to him, so his kindness was to keep walking, to help her feel safe, even if it took him in the opposite direction from where he intended to go. This was a kindness I am not sure I needed, but a kindness nonetheless. Perhaps he understood, too, that the hug had been too much, and that he owed me a bit of distance to help me feel safer. And it did, honestly. Because he gave me that space, I was able to leave this simple interaction feeling the tension and discomfort of a balanced interaction, and the joy and warmth too. Through each of our acts, we were both a little outside of our comfort zones. We were both assessing the other person and their energy. We were both risking something, even just negative feelings, and we were both rewarded; our faith in humanity bolstered.

Looking into that man’s eyes, I saw a tenuousness. He was saying, please let my instinct be correct: that you are in fact a kind person who will not insult me by running away from me, by judging my character. And I was saying, please let my instinct be correct: that you are in fact a kind person who will not hurt me or steal my belongings or make me regret the decision to engage in this way.

From my years of making work that intentionally engages with the idea of connecting with strangers, from my years growing up in a bed-and-breakfast in rural Colorado, and from a year of traveling around the world, I have a litany of stories like this one. My instincts have not steered me wrong. That does not mean I do not sometimes feel nervous, but, in fact, that nervous feeling leads to the greatest rewards.

I’m squaring my kindness debt with the universe by taking a risk. And when I am performing an act of kindness that feels redemptive, a certain kind of tension vibrates — a reminder of the risk-reward relationship, an energy sensed, I believe, by all involved. Some might call that energy “fear,” and maybe that’s one name for it. But I have promised myself to work away from fear, to work towards affection and love and connection. So to me, that tension, that feeling is the palpable discomfort of living and operating in spaces outside of the familiar. And I want to embrace that.

Sarah Sellman is a filmmaker and artist based in Los Angeles. Sarah graduated from NYU Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Film and Television. Her feature documentary, American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers screened at festivals across the country, culminating in a self organized theatrical release and educational screening tour, as well as an online and DVD release. During post production on American Bear Sarah organized several nation wide events and initiatives to support the themes and ideas of the film. Sarah is currently developing a nonfiction/fiction hybrid project inspired by her year spent traveling around the world with her husband in 2016, called I Am Here, as well as the screenplay for her first feature-length narrative directing endeavor.

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