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Why would I want to speak with a stranger?

How getting a puppy introduced Rich Powney to a whole new world of community

My wife and I have recently had a new addition to our household. We bought a puppy.

It’s been a full-on few weeks learning to live with a very friendly but also very untrained animal. However, amidst all the toilet trips, chewing and play biting, we’ve both noticed an interesting phenomenon. As we’ve taken our puppy outside to get him used to traffic, other people, cyclists, other dogs, etc, we’ve spoken to more strangers in our local area in the last three weeks than in the previous two years. 

There’s something about Peanut, that’s the puppy, that breaks the normal reality that where we live generally strangers don’t speak to each other. The experience has reminded me of research into the surprising benefits of talking to strangers.

Disclaimer: I live in south-west London and have spent the majority of my life in the south-east of England. My wife, who is Scottish and grew up predominantly in the north of England, tells me that it is more common for strangers to chat to each other in other parts of the country. However, where I’ve lived for most of my life has epitomised what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman refers to as mixophobia’, a general dis-trust or fear of those who are different, who until you get to know people could be anyone; including those you walk past on the street. 

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The research tracked how people experienced their commute, with one group being asked to speak to a stranger on their commute. It found that those who did speak with a stranger found it surprisingly pleasant and experienced a lift in their mood, and suggests this is because humans are inherently social creatures, who are made happier and healthier when connected to others”. 

Reading this report from a Christian perspective, their findings resonate with a Christian understanding of humanity. In Genesis 2:18 we read that it is not good for man to be alone”, an insight that results in God creating Eve so that Adam is no longer alone. At the same time, Genesis 1:27 tells us that humanity has been made in the image of God; vast amounts have been written on what this means, but one facet is that the one who we image is a God who lives in perfect relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I think some of our need for relationship can be understood from this perspective. 

Finally, Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets in a relational network of love of God and love of neighbour, a wise existence is one dedicated to the cultivation of loving relationships with our creator and those who live around us. So, the research makes complete sense: people are not designed to live in isolation; yet, although we find ourselves in a culture where we are more connected than ever, we are also more aware of our disconnectedness from others at the same time. 

A person I met at work recently said our culture was experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. I wonder if sometimes as churches we focus on the next big project or event we can plan for our community (which do have an important place) but forget to champion and cheer on the simple steps of getting to know our neighbours, visiting those who are isolated, and being open to striking up conversations with the people around us. 

Our recent experiences have challenged me, because I’ve generally used the excuse of being introvert to avoid talking to people I don’t know. However, I want to change. Rather than seeing the person walking towards me as a stranger to be feared, I want to grow to see them as a neighbour to be loved. This growth to becoming more Christlike doesn’t need to start with an extravagant gesture. I think it can begin with simply saying hello to the person sitting next to me on a bus, in a coffee shop or elsewhere. 

As people have engaged with us because of our puppy, we’ve had short conversations with them. None of these have been about faith, but in the future, they could be. The challenge to me, and maybe to you, too, is to be open to the promptings of the Spirit in all circumstances, not just the ones we’re comfortable with. Why talk to a stranger? Because human beings were not designed to be alone. 

About the author

Rich currently works part time in the unity for mission team at the Evangelical Alliance. He recently began a PhD in theology at the London School of Theology. To relax, you’ll often find Rich and his wife, Kit, enjoying the outdoors – preferably up a mountain.

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