Star-crossed strangers wander into each others’ paths for all kinds of reasons, forming specific yet strange, fleeting yet memorable para-social bonds …
Peacefully stalking the art gallery together with an unknown appreciator, calmly but actively waiting for the barista to magic up your takeaway cappucino, or stuck in the mandatory acknowledgement of another lone browser of pots in the garden centre … Have you ever entered the orbit of a stranger, or strangers, for practical purposes and thought – I might remember this entirely mundane shared moment forever?
In these socially distorted times, where we are forced to explore the many different types of loneliness that can result from being physically cut off from others, moments where we feel known to a stranger can bring us sudden comfort.
A possible fallout from having to live our social lives online could be that we lose out on these fleeting moments of connection with those who don’t know us, and as a result, we miss helpful mini-reminders of our humanhood. But on the bright side – maybe we are beginning to appreciate these otherworldly encounters even more.
Body language, murmurs, sniffs, smiles, nods, gestures and looks, are all part and parcel of intimate post-verbal conversation that we’ve missed out on – not just with family and friends, but with run-of-the-mill randomers. Emotional connection is too cleanly packaged from those we know online – and just too much and too often, from those we might be stuck with…
Star-crossed strangers wander into each others’ paths for all kinds of reasons, forming specific yet strange, fleeting yet memorable para-social bonds.
1. Surely, you’ve found yourself stalked (or stalking) at the art gallery. Swimming in lovely pensive quiet, you pass through the exhibition at a leisurely step. Keeping pace with you, though, is a fellow painting peeper. You both make mannerly effort not to get too close with one another. You don’t catch each other’s eye – that would be ridiculous – but you notice, as you pause at the pieces you like a little more, to gaze a little longer…so does your counterpart. They are honouring your preferential paintings! How respectful. You immediately like this stranger. You choose to pause at their apparent favourites too, and you know that they noticed you doing that. Maybe at the fourth or fifth section of the gallery, you’ll flash a warm smile at one another, or be brave enough to offer a murmur of approval at the main exhibit, together. This is fanciful though, because it is more likely that you will wait until your counterpart has disappeared via the busy gift shop to pick up any postcards, and then you leave, never to see them again.
2. Perhaps at the airport, on the last leg of a journey abroad, you find yourself engaged in a para-social bond while you wait for your bus home. As you stroll to the airport coach you yawn and breathe a sigh of relief to nearly be at your door. The coach is due in ten-to-fifteen minutes – perfect: enough time to catch your breath and drum up excitement for your first cup of tea at home, but not too much to get bored and cold in the wait. But, rumbling up behind you, to shatter your solitude, is a stranger, slowly pulling a wheelie suitcase (thus the rumbling). You offer a pressed smile, and get one back, and then the wait begins. Every so often you steal a peek at their luggage, worn-out expression, phone case, or the state of their shoes – clues as to who they are, where they came from, what they do, if they do anything, and what their future holds. Interestingly, you have the answer to the last one: much like yours, their immediate future begins with the arrival of this coach. It feels oddly comforting to know you have that in common. But, there is tension too – after ten minutes pass, you’ve stolen all the peeks you can take, and you still know nothing else about them. The coach’s arrival is in the offing, and the Dublin air is getting colder, and the silence is becoming more solid with time. You both shift your weight foot-to-foot and check the faces of your phones intermittently. When the coach makes its anticipated arrival, you seem to share an outward breath of relief. Your new friend gestures forward, offering for you to get on first, and you realise you know one more thing about them. They are polite.
3. Maybe you’ve been further afield to engage in a para-social bond. Ah you remember now! The sky is blue, the wind kissing your exposed nose is bitingly cold, and swooshing sounds of plastic blades slicing the snow fill the air. Every so often you hear a word or two of French, which tickles you. You’re skiing. Cutting serenely and modestly through the soft snow of the resort’s Green Slope, you pull up gently alongside your loud French instructor, in his loud French ski-suit. But wait – there are others here, seemingly waiting – on you! Other tourists at your skiing lesson! Other learners due to be taught this new thing too! Why do you feel like a child all of a sudden? A moment ago, no fellow skier would have a clue that you were a novice. That was a secret. But now, your very presence at this lesson, on this slope, announces your novice-ness. And soon, you will display your lack of prowess, and probably your lack of potential, as you fall backwards (somehow) trying to achieve a turn. As French toddlers overtake you, crushing your ego, you can only take solace in the fact these fellow beginners at your lesson might share in your shame. As they pull you to your feet, strapped in rented skis, and vice versa, a bond forms. One of mutual learning, growth, and embarrassment.
Other possible para-social bonds might include the bizarre suspension of time and conversation in the waiting room at your doctor’s. The silence is kind of eerie because you and your fellow patients are definitely all thinking the same things: “How sick are they? How sick am I? Should I be embarrassed to wait here?” Or maybe that bond of mutual awkwardness and reluctance that has to take place when your dog makes an acquaintance of another dog, trapping you and the owner of its new friend in a compulsory acknowledgement of each other. It’s sort of funny, and for the first five minutes you laugh, but the longer the insistent sniffing goes on, the awkwardness increases.
Even though these moments bonding you and an unknown can be slightly fraught, or odd, or ultra-immediate, there is some comfort to think – this other person and I, for however long, *know* each other. We briefly have a feeling in common. As humans, that might be all we have to offer one another for a little while yet.
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