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Strangers to Friends

Now everybody's coming to my house

And I'm never gonna be alone

And everybody's coming to my house

And they're never gonna go back home”

Chorus from Everybody’s Coming to my House David Byrne

Most people are strangers to us.  We have not met them before, we have not talked to them before.  We know nothing about them.  Then something changes and one of those people who we have had a conversation with becomes a friend.  The transition goes through stages: interest, commonalities, offerings, experiences.  It is a way of establishing a trust between the two parties. This transition does not often happen through chance meetings; on buses, in queues, bumping into people on the street, and the more modern way, online. There are places that make this transition an easy one: schools, universities, workplaces, social groups both formal and informal.  Often built around a shared interest, sport, culture, education, language, events, or festivals.  These places offer the opportunity to speak with people, it is expected, and from there friendships can blossom.  We all need contact from other humans so we can become our full selves and much of our daily effort goes into making this happen.

When living in social groups was a new thing, humans invented rules of engagement with strangers.  This was to allow both parties to sound each other out before large commitments were made.  This type of rules of engagement, or rituals happen in all cultures and communities around the world adapted to suit the environment and culture.  In Mongolia this tradition is still adhered to. It is called yos.

The Yos gives both the host and the visitor reference points, and many rules to abide by.  If, as the stranger, your horse was taken by wolves the host has to tell you “The mountain god took your horse.”  Another horse is provided by the host.  The tea has to be swirled in a clockwise direction within the bowl offered to the stranger.  The host must offer meat to the stranger and the stranger has to take the meat as the first mouthful of food chewing in an extravagant way to suggest it is large and generous.  The stranger is not allowed to sing in their bed.  Older people are allowed to admonish younger more talkative companions.  If you are going to share the bread you took the effort to make that day you need to know the person understands the rules.

The yos rules are not as strict as they once were but still the rules about crossing the threshhold are adhered to.  Will Buckingham describes how anthropologist Caroline Humphrey lived on the Mongolian grasslands in the 1980’s in his book “Hello, Stranger”.  Humphrey documented the exact words that have to be used when visiting someone you did not know.  On turning up the stranger must state loudly, “Mind the dog”.  On hearing this the women and children of the household come out to restrain the dog.  The stranger is then permitted to stand in front of the threshold and cough loudly to announce their arrival.  They then have to put down all weapons, with the exception of a knife on a hilt, useful for eating, but they are not allowed to touch the hilt.  The stranger has to enter the ger or yut with their right foot.  The stranger’s clothes have to be in order, coat done up, hat on. (Hats are an important part of attire for Mongolian men.  It is said that their hats hold on to part of their soul.) The host welcomes the stranger to sit and asks “What is there that is strange and beautiful - what is the news?” The stranger, now in the role of visitor or guest, answers “Nothing at all - fair and peaceful.”  Once this is out of the way the host offers food and drink.  

In more modern times writers have come up with rules for engagement.  The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, thought that dining alone squandered the opportunity to have “a play on thoughts”, but, and there was a big but, dinner parties offered the “veritable medicine for the mind”, not everyone could hold up their end of the conversation so guests had to be chosen carefully.  Weather is always a safe topic as Image: Britannica

an opening gambit and gossip could be entertaining and educational.  Conversation should include all the guests and focus on common interests.  All guests should be allowed the freedom to articulate their thoughts unhampered.  There should be at least three guests but no more than nine.  Kant saw the dinner party as a unique experience that showed off all of human goodness, if the rules were followed.

Isabella Beeton in her book, “Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management” quotes Proverbs 35:21-28 about the virtues of a good wife.  “Strength and honour are her clothing,”.  The host should invite a mixture of guests who should be both listeners and talkers.  The hostess is responsible for staving off the social risks of slighted honour. At the same time she has to offer the best experience for her guests.  The half an hour before the food is served is the time where the guests are still arriving and the conversation can be awkward.  The cook and domestic staff are doing what they should and waiting for the hostess’s instructions.  The hostess has to remain calm showing no signs of agitation and introducing suitable subjects for conversation to flow.  Once the meal is served the hostess still has to pay attention to her guests.  At a suitable lull in the conversation she will suggest to the ‘ladies’ they should retire to allow the men to become “unfit to conduct themselves with that decorum which is essential in the presence of ladies.”

Since we moved to Canberra I have hosted a number of dinner parties and not once have I found myself in a position that I had to suggest the ladies move to another place.  I do not have domestic staff to instruct either.  Social etiquette has changed over the last 150 years. The dinner parties I have hosted do have something in common with Mrs Beeton; they are a way of making and deepening ties between people.  

In the first few months in Canberra in an effort to expand the limited number of social acquaintances we had, I joined a number of groups.  In any group there are going to be people you get along with straight away, people who you have to work with to find out the commonalities, and those who you are never going to get along well with, but can make polite conversation with at the group.  

I joined the Canberra Knitters and Crocheters.  This group of over 3 thousand people, mainly women, shows off their handmade knitted and crocheted blankets, jumpers, dresses, skirts, teddies, other animals online. There are face to face meet ups across the ACT most days during the day and the evenings.  Occasionally outings to yarn places and events are organised; weekends away to places like Daylesford and Mulgoa.  This is a welcoming and interesting space.  There are few rules: be kind and courteous.  There is no enrollment, or fees.  At the face to face meetings we all bring the projects we are working on and sit and chat.  The conversations vary each week but there is always something about what is going on in our lives: children, parents, work, gardens, holidays, babies, medical conditions, films, TV, visits to cultural places and overseas, stories of all kinds.  There is nothing off limits. It is a place to be heard and seen.  When members have not been for a while they are warmly welcomed with other members wanting to hear their news.  Of course, not everyone participates in the same way.  At the risk of sounding like a Dr Seuss book, some are quiet, some are loud and full of themselves, some are articulate, some stumble with words, some sit on the side lines, some bring children, some are happy about being without their children. Everyone is respected, listened to and included.

I also joined Crafternoons at Smith’s Alternative.  This group is also ad hoc.  Whoever turns up brings their projects, has lunch (usually toasties) and a coffee and sits to chat to other participants.  Again there is no enrollment or payment.  Some weeks there are just four or five, other weeks 10 people can cram around the tables outside, speaking against the noise of the pianos, buses (Smiths is located on Alinga Street which makes up part of the Canberra Bus Interchange) and on occasions drunks.  The range of craft is large: crochet, knitting, embroidery, free-hand stitching.  There has been hand carving of jewellry, colouring, and design.  The variety of the craft is matched by the variety of people who do it.  

The group was started by Patricia who has since got a full time job and can no longer attend.  It is held together and promoted by Angela who both knits and crochets.  There are a few regulars, myself included, Lois, the ‘other Vicki’, Krisha, Gail (known as Graygel coined by her grandchildren who found Granny Gail too hard). She attends with her daughters and granddaughter.  The conversation is always about what has happened this week.  All attendees are keen culture vultures so there are films, shows and events to talk about.  This week I will report back on the Opera Salon I attended with one of Gail's daughters, Katie, using another of her talents to play her violin.  Sometimes the conversations veer towards political topics; the recent referendum, Covid vaccination and the use of modern technology.  All views are tolerated and investigated.  It is a commonly held belief that all opinions should be offered and respected.

In both groups all participants have moved from stranger status.  If I bump into one of them while out doing other things we stand and pass the time of the day. (This is a common occurrence as Canberra is a small place.) In both the groups I have also met people I would now consider to be friends.  Julie and I have been on two holidays together in the last 12 months; we travel well sharing a room. The ‘Other Vicki’ and I have found things in common: music, films, other culture, particularly art and indoor plants. We like to do the same things: I bumped into her twice in one week in December at tourist venues.  We share similar situations: grown up children, downsized into apartments, we like to make things.

Of course none of these things guarantees friendship; it gives a good basis.  There are other things that come into play too.  On the Reachout website, true friendship is defined as someone who: is there for you, does not judge, does not put you down, or intentionally hurt you, is kind and respectful and whose company you enjoy.  These things, just like a good sourdough loaf, take time.  And just like sourdough it also takes work.  Being a friend requires attention, being there, doing things together, sharing time and effort. Making that first move from stranger to friend can be a little daunting.  With similar reasons to why people do not want to talk to strangers at all: will I be able to find things to talk about, or will this person like me, or will this person then just cling to me and I will not be able to get away from them.  Making that first foray into friendship is hard and about trust. It is also about turning up.

As an adult it is hard to make new friends.  It does not happen organically; there has to be some effort involved.  In her Ted Talk about “The Secret of Making New Friends As An Adult” Marisa Franco explains why friends are so important to us, how they allow us to become our real selves.  In Western cultures we hold different types of love in a hierarchy: Romantic and Familial Love at the top and Platonic Love or friendship at the bottom.  She argues that we do this because we are not very good at making new friends as adults.  Unlike children who will talk to strangers without inhibition, adults are held back because of what Franco calls the ‘paradox of people’.  We know we need them but they may hurt us, or make us feel small, or reject us.  We are also more attuned to the ‘likeable gap’.  This tells us they will not like us as much as we will like them.  Franco describes a study conducted where all participants were told they had been picked for the group they were entering based on their profile.  All participants would love each other.  This was a lie, no profiling had taken place and no assumptions made about the group.  The group met and researchers found that having been told the untruth the participants were more open, engaging and present with the others making friendship more likely.

The other reason Franco gives for the difficulty adults have making new friends is what she terms ‘covert avoidance’.  This is where we watch our phones, or go to other lengths to not engage with others, even if they are approaching us.  Being there physically and mentally are important.

Maybe we are now at a stage in our human development that we, in the West, need to develop some rules of engagement to smooth the way for strangers to venture towards friends. Maybe we should just say Hello more and be present while we say it?

Note: This blog includes photos of work by Angela, Gail, Vicki and the 'other Vicki'


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