I’m sitting in a booth in the East Quad dining hall, hunched over a small bowl of beans and rice, when a voice coming from my right asks me a question. It takes me a few seconds to comprehend what this person is asking because of the music blasting through my headphones and the empty, almost meditative state that my mind takes when I’m eating.
I pull an earbud out. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Can I sit here?”
I nod and say yes to be polite, gesturing towards the empty seat in front of me. In reality, I am a little annoyed. For me, lunch in the dining hall is an opportunity to zone out completely and take a break in between a long day of classes. The last thing I want to do is have to talk to a stranger while doing so. Still, I try to be an agreeable person, so I offer up the cushioned seat of the booth across from me. There really isn’t anywhere else to sit during the peak lunch hour.
The boy introduces himself to me and I do the same. I don’t remember his name. We talk about something, mostly small talk with nothing of substance — hometowns, majors, classes — and then I finish my lunch and go about the rest of my day.
I’ve always been a pretty quiet person. I don’t like drawing attention to myself, whether that be in class or in social settings. Not shy exactly, because I’ll speak up if I absolutely have to, but in new situations, I prefer to keep my speaking with strangers to a minimum. It was something that was easy to accomplish in my small high school, where I spoke to only a handful of people each day and during freshman year of college last year when most social contacts were nonexistent. This past month has been the first time I’ve talked to strangers I never intend to meet again.
Last year, I tried to force myself to talk to many strangers. The intent of these freshman year interactions was to make friends. I talked to people with the desire to talk to them again later, and then again until we had exchanged enough words and spent enough time together to call each other friends. The results of this were often tiring (and sometimes disappointing). I remember listening to advice from upperclassmen who said that the people they talked to during the first few weeks of college were people that they never spoke to again. At the time, I knew these words were meant to calm the nerves of people who hadn’t made friends, but they also undermined the value of talking to people you will never see again — an amazing activity that I only started appreciating recently.
One-time conversations tend to be memorable for me. Even if I don’t remember the names of the people that I’ve spoken to, I do remember their faces and random facts about them — a language class they’ve taken or the dorm they live in or where they’re from. Because I’ll never see them again, there is less pressure to remember their names and we can instead have a very brief moment of connection before continuing on our separate paths. After spending so much time cooped up at home, alone with no one but my family, these little conversations have become so much more meaningful to me. They’re also helping me acclimate to campus, adding stories to the hundreds of faces I see each day. Even though some might find these conversations dry because of how routine the conversations are — they rarely ever scratch the surface of who someone is as a person — I like seeing and hearing the different responses that others have to the same topics, like their favorite parts of the University of Michigan (Alice loves Nichols Arboretum Arb and Aisha likes to study in the Michigan League) or their favorite bubble tea spot in Ann Arbor (Will likes ChaTime but Katie thinks it’s overpriced). I might be a little tired of repeating those things myself, but it’s worth it to hear what the other person has to say. The knowledge that I’m probably never going to meet them again is nice, too. It takes the pressure off of the conversation and I feel more relaxed than I do when I talk to a stranger in class when I know I’ll see them the next day. Any slip-up or awkwardness in these moments will probably be quickly forgotten and if it isn’t, at least that person isn’t around every day to remind you of it.
I’ve started to enjoy small talk with strangers despite COVID-19 making it uncommon. Many people (including myself) are fairly content in their individual spaces — safe from the virus and any sort of interaction. I sometimes find myself wishing for that pre-pandemic openness of random conversation with strangers, but then remember that I probably wouldn’t crave it at all without having had a socially limited year.
I wish I was also brave enough to start those spontaneous conversations, but most of the time I just accept them when they come to me, unable to muster the strength to ignite one myself. I appreciate those who don’t have those qualms and are able to approach strangers without the anxiety about how they may respond. They’ve taught me that you don’t need to become friends with someone to have a connection that you can carry beyond your short conversation in the dining hall.
MiC Columnist Safura Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.