August 20, 2014

Talking To Strangers

by Kalie Boyne

Kalie Boyne '16 is a Royce Fellow traveling from Providence to Boston and San Diego to create portraits and collect stories of diverse individuals on the subjects of self-definition, value, purpose, and experience. 

“So who’s this? What’s their story?” people always ask, flipping through the portraits I’ve drawn.

I have a hard time answering that question, because we live in a society that teaches us to understand the world by labeling everything and everyone in it. I don’t want to classify other humans the way biology books classify plant species, and I don’t want to define myself as a bullet-point list of various facts either.

Yet when we introduce who we are to a stranger, we don’t describe the traumas that have shaped our lives, we don’t speak passionately about what we truly love, and we rarely have conversations for hours about our beliefs and values with a person we’ve met on the street. Instead, we answer the same questions we’ve answered countless times before: What is your occupation? Where did you grow up? How old are you? Where did you go to school?

After I lay out those four facts, I don’t feel as though I’ve given the people around me any information about who I am as a person at all. I would rather define myself by the accomplishments I’m most proud of, the people I cherish, the values I hold and the reasons I live.

No one wants to be stereotyped, yet it’s easy for us all to make assumptions about each other when our interactions lack depth. At the same time, we are constantly consuming media that teaches us who to see and who to value. We look at people on the street and judge them based on what we’ve learned from TV instead of what we could learn by speaking with them. Every human has something to teach the world, and I aim to provide individuals with a platform to share that knowledge and experience with the understanding that their voice will be valued.

I do two very simple things for each of the fifty people in my project: I listen to them and I draw their faces.

Each person I talk to shares their experiences and their reflections on those experiences, and I am moved, surprised and educated every time someone shares their life with me. I interview people of different ages, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, class backgrounds, religions and occupations. As you can imagine, each story is extremely unique and complex.

In this diversity, however, I’ve found connections between people who live in different countries and have different religions yet share the same dreams and values and fears. In the past three months, I feel as though I’ve lived thirty lives, and each one resonates with my own and shares similarities with the others.

These are people who, if described only by the few facts we as a society deem important, would have nothing in common. With each conversation, the patterns between each human grew stronger. A middle-aged Muslim physiotherapist from Pakistan and a 19-year-old female slam poet from Haiti shared almost identical beliefs about the purpose of life.

We have so much in common with one another and so much to learn at the same time. By interacting only with a certain group of people, we deprive ourselves and we stay boxed in.

Recognizing the humanity of other people makes me feel more human. I listen to stories of sexual abuse, of political activism in Morocco, of childhoods spent in Iraq, of happy families. As each conversation ends, I can feel all the things I’ve been superficially defined as lose their significance more and more.

I doesn’t matter where I work, where I go to school, what I look like, or where I come from. I’m just a human, and I’m listening to another human’s experience with life. 

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