The Kindness of Strangers

learning by going

I’m never in a hurry to talk to strangers. For example, if I am going into a store, my preference is to dodge the salespeople who aim to greet me on my way in and avoid talking to anyone unless I purchase something. I know people who want to be greeted, but I am not one of those people. If I am greeted, and asked if I would like help, I always say, “no, I’m just looking.”  I respond this way even when I am actually looking for something and I don’t know where to find it. When I worked in retail, I felt like I could spot the people who feel the same as me---the lack of eye contact, the drifting to the side of the store---and I would forego greeting them in a silent show of solidarity. Now that I am a parent, strangers talk to me. Most of it is pretty much okay. Conversations at the playground with other moms hit the same themes (how old? what’s his name? and so on) and are easily ended when one’s child runs too far afield or asks to go on the swings. My son receives a lot of compliments on his general cuteness from strangers, and I know how to gracefully nod and say thank you, or even more cloyingly, tell him to say thank you. Sometimes folks ask questions about him that would be pretty hilarious to ask another adult stranger, but I do my best to give answers that will be found satisfactory while never actually revealing much about us at all.  A woman asks, “does he eat table food?” I answer, “he loves eating!” An older man asks, “Is he a good boy?” and I answer, “look at him!”

I thought about this recently when a friend on Facebook posted a link to the hilarious article “Hello Stranger on the Street, Could You Please Tell Me How To Take Care Of My Baby” by Wendy Molyneux. I read it, chuckled heartily, and took a moment to be grateful that this hadn’t happened to me terribly often in my son’s first year. There was the time when my wife and I were in Target and attempting to adjust his position in the baby carrier on my chest, and a woman stopped and said, “Do you need help, that doesn’t look like it is on right.” I roared to action, as someone who is sleep-deprived and carrying fifteen sweaty pounds on her chest is likely to do, particularly when she feels as though she really does have it under control.  I snapped back that we were fine and, confident in her moral high ground as baby carrier good Samaritan, my foil didn’t back down. The end result was more than a bit of incivility near the denim short display and my having a very frustrated spouse.

But that was nearly a year ago, and as I read the Molyneux piece, I thought about how it hasn’t happened often. I felt grateful to live in the East, where people are generally not overly perky or interested in one another (simply buying milk at the grocery store when I visit my parents in St. Louis makes me feel as though I have walked into another country what with all of the smiles and cheer).

As these stories always go, though, I had become too comfortable.  Too complacent. The three of us went to an art fair along the Hudson River this week. It was a gorgeous day, sunny, and breezy. We had brought our son in his big jogging stroller to be able to navigate over the grass. We lathered him with sunscreen and put on his baseball cap. To enter the fair, we had to go through a little aisle and down a small hill, and I lifted the front wheel of the stroller off of the ground to give myself more maneuverability on the hill.  As we entered the fair, a woman stopped us and said, “Just so you know . . .”

“Just so you know . . .”  It’s pretty rare when someone says “Just so you know . . . that sweater looks awesome on you” or “Just so you know . . . you make the best cole slaw.”  The phrase gave me the perfect amount of pre-processing time. I knew what was coming was going to be infuriating. I stopped the stroller.  I looked at the woman, a little older than my mother, and she said, “as you came down the hill with the stroller tilted, the sun was right in his eyes.”

I wanted to explain that my goal had been for him to never see the sun, never know that the sun existed, live a vampire-like existence of dusk and twilight and now that was ruined, ruined, and I would always think of how she had been the one to bring me the news.

I wanted to explain that we had been planning to spend all afternoon on that small patch of hill (one where everyone was coming and going in a single file all day, and where we were now holding up traffic), but that she was totally right, the angle of the sun made doing that totally impractical.

I wanted to roll my eyes. I wanted to snap back.  I wanted to say, “Are you serious?”

But I didn’t. I smiled and nodded.  I said nothing. She seemed surprised. She looked at me. I looked at her. A moment passed.  She said, “Now though, with the hat, he’s fine.” I nodded again, still smiling. She looked at my son.  She said, “he’s gorgeous.” I smiled, and nodded, and said “thank you.”

We moved on. My wife immediately praised me for keeping my cool. We realized that the power dynamic shifted the second I didn’t say anything in response, forcing her to backtrack to fill the silence. In fact, by the end of the interaction, she seemed embarrassed. In my previous experience of unsolicited parenting advice, I filled all of the potential silence with anger, and ended up feeling terrible. Furthermore, overly engaging with strangers is not something that I do---in anger or in any other situation. Unsurprisingly, being myself worked best, and we walked on, into the shade.