The struggle of talking to strangers

When should we intervene in the lives of people we don’t know?


A few days ago, I saw another student crying in Gilmer Hall. I was sitting on the bench outside my psychology lecture hall, going over the material I was supposed to have finished reading the night before. I arrived a few minutes earlier than I meant to, so the class before mine was still in session. A stranger slumped beside me, and his head pressed into his hands. When he lifted up his head to look at the clock, I realized he had been crying. 

Without looking at me, his head fell back into his arms. Every breath was uneven and shaky. I watched his shoulders shake with grief, feeling nervous and unsure what to do. Only a moment ago, I was memorizing the definition of a diploid cell, and now, another student was sobbing five feet away from me. I didn’t know why he was crying. I didn’t know him at all, and he didn’t know me. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if he knew anyone else was watching him.

I had two choices, and no easy way of deciding which to act upon. I could intervene in the life of a stranger and try to comfort him, or I could leave him alone and respect his privacy. I didn’t know how serious his situation was or if he wanted to talk about it. I also didn’t know if someone to talk to was exactly what he needed right now. I didn’t know much of anything, but I still had to make a choice.

After a few minutes of wavering, the stranger sitting next to me started to breathe normally. Students from the class before started leaving the building, making no eye contact and moving fast. Drying his eyes, the stranger stood up and walked out of my life. Before I could decide to intervene, the choice was gone. I sat on the bench, unsure if I had done the right thing. He seemed like he had calmed down, but maybe I could have helped in some way. I didn’t want to make a decision, but by not offering him any comfort, I still ended up making one.

The University will always be a school of strangers. Even if you have a large circle of friends, the reality is it’s impossible to know even half of your classmates. As a result, we spend much of our time here amid students we’ve never met. Sometimes, that can be nice. As an introvert, I’ve always been fine not knowing everyone. That being said, I’m still happiest around my friends. College can be stressful, and at some point, we all need a shoulder to cry on.

So, what if the only shoulder around is a stranger’s?

I’m not sure I made the right decision. Breaking down the barrier between oneself and a stranger is harder than nonintervention. To insert yourself into the life of someone you don’t know is a difficult thing, and there are not guarantees in the realm of human interaction. If posed hypothetically, I think that most of us would agree that it is better to intervene than it is to stay removed from someone else’s problems. My experience outside of my psychology classroom, however, showed me just how difficult helping a stranger can be.

A few days ago, I saw someone eating alone. Their eyes were downcast, skimming the floor and occasionally looking at the space next to them where a person could be sitting. I watched them from afar, hoping that they were just waiting for a friend to arrive. After a while, I realized that nobody was coming.

Once again, I was at a crossroads. Apprehension gnawed at my stomach. Talking to a stranger was the last thing my introverted brain wanted to do. On top of that, I was tired from a long day of school work.

So, I sat down next to them.

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