It has not been a good time for public sociability in Western Europe, with right-wing nationalist victories in the EU elections, and the murder of three people at Brussels Jewish museum.
But among the powerful narratives that journalists tell of anger and hostility towards geo-political others lie the micro-stories of everyday life in which people share their spaces, conversations and, sometimes, even their bodies positively with strangers.
What relationship, if any, exists between these different dimensions of urban life? Do hostility and hatred, including for reasons of gender and ethnicity, have any relationship to the presence (or, perhaps, more significantly the absence) of other kinds of stranger encounters?
Being with strangers
It’s tempting to suggest hostility and alienation come from a lack of good contact; and that more positive experiences with strangers are the solution. The last British Labour government adopted this approach, legislating for “good relations” – a contact-based practice intended to remedy or at least diminish hostility between ethnic (and other) groups.
At the same time, Labour’s time in power witnessed a ratcheting in the stigmatisation of others – of “women on welfare”, of refugees, children unsupervised in public spaces, of “nuisance” tenants.
And despite their emphasis on “good relations”, Labour did little to advance public sociability more widely. Deployed as a mechanistic solution for dealing with “cultural” conflict, “good relations” did little to challenge wider negative norms regarding stranger contact, and the economic and cultural forces that drive them. Today, Labour may seek a nation that is “One”, but setting these boundaries as national boundaries reinforces rather than unsettles the associations drawn between threat and other.
These points have been made fully and extensively, and I don’t want to repeat them here. Instead, I’m interested in exploring alternatives to the tacit rules that govern stranger contact.
These rules, even in Britain, are far from universal – varying by age, class, ethnicity, place and time. At the same time, popular norms can be easily recited (even as racism and class inequalities structure their application): ignore those you don’t know, unless… you are on a country walk when you may nod or hello to those passing by; you are in a venue governed by other norms; you are faced with a public crisis or shared problem – which, in the British cultural imaginary, often involves trains.
And so, despite the many public contexts where people talk or make contact, the pervasive image is of avoidance as popular knowledge confirms the embodied ways people learn to avoid contact – strictures absorbed from childhood onwards: don’t catch their eye; don’t ask them a question (unless it’s a simple – where am I? Where’s the tube? What’s the time – question); reply briefly if asked something yourself; and have a non-intimate “good object” to look at when immobile unknown others surround you.
Is acquaintanceship better?
In his book, Acquaintances, David Morgan explores a class of social relationships that exist somewhere between friends and intimates, and strangers. Acquaintanceship, for Morgan, covers a lot of ground – from neighbours to one-off service providers, friends of friends at a dinner party, to the person you pass walking their dog each day.
Identified as socially enriching, Morgan seeks to reclaim acquaintanceship but also to extend who counts. He leaves strangers, however – those we don’t know at all – in their residual space as people we tend to avoid rather than welcome. But can we think of strangers differently? Can we think of them more like acquaintances?
Embodied presence in play
Between 2003 and 2013, I conducted research at London’s Speakers’ Corner, a place where people gather and talk. While religious and political orators are the primary focus, the more interesting, spontaneous and fluid conversations happen around these staged show-pieces, as people make contact across generational, gender, national and religious divides.
Londoners, tourists, migrants, and refugees go to the Corner to argue and banter; they come together in different configurations, intense small clusters of gesticulating highly embodied conversations, which disperse and then move on.
At Speakers’ Corner, no small talk is required before you dive into a conversation about politics, religion or sex. This is acquaintanceship without acquaintance norms. Between strangers, greetings and exchange of names are rare; email addresses are not swapped, and there are no prolonged good-byes with promises to meet again soon. These are conversations where just the middle part is left – topped and tailed.
A different space that also plays with the space and tension between strangers and acquaintances is the Toronto Women and Trans Bathhouse – an occasional event that I researched over a similar period to the Corner, interested in the ways it sought to support Toronto’s raunchy erotic cultural life.
Although the bathhouse wasn’t just about sex – participants chatted, enjoyed spa facilities, watched videos, and watched others – stranger contact was central to its ethos. And when it came to sex, stranger sex was most admired (not sex with a towed-along friend or lover), even as the women, to whom I chatted, suggested strangers were friends of friends – within overlapping circles.
Like Speakers’ Corner, the bathhouse allowed for stranger play norms: so names could be made-up, a self could be fashioned for the space, and, like the passing acquaintances David Morgan describes, no onus existed for encounters to generate greater familiarity.
Playing with strangers happened for its own sake – for the pleasure of play and, although at early bathhouses, participants told me email addresses were often exchanged in the course of post-sex acquaintanceship, this seemed to decline as participants became more comfortable with the idea of serial stranger sex.
Of course, public sex venues and speakers’ corners are not everyone’s cup of tea. Many find the existing demands of stranger sociability taxing enough – the last thing they want is more of it.
What does stranger sociability do?
My argument isn’t that people should speak or play with strangers more. Simply, that we think politically about the norms governing stranger contact. (And though my focus here is embodied presence, the norms governing distant sociability also sharply matter.) What would it mean to treat strangers as if they were acquaintances? Could we do so without losing a connection to the positive qualities of unfamiliarity?
Why should we do so?
First, our experience of space and place is significantly structured by stranger encounters. People we don’t know (who also may differ considerably from ourselves) form an important part of the dermic layer though which a city, town or other geography becomes experienced, inhabited and known. As strangers, the actual people involved may be less central; our investment is not with them personally but with the place. The strangers that we encounter there are its proxy.
Second, and complicating this notion of proxy, it’s often through our encounters with unknown others that we experience and express collective responsibility for those with whom we share the planet – a sharing that is of course extendable to other beings also.
Responsibility for others came to the forefront in my bathhouse research, highlighting the surprising ways a space for stranger sex can be caring and attentive. Participants I talked to spoke of the vulnerability people experienced at a bathhouse and the importance of sensitivity, particularly when it came to saying “no”; about acts of kindness from participants who offered massages, friendly words, and shared food; and about the care the bathhouse committee showed in relation to participants’ sexual health, racism, transphobia and participation by people with disabilities.
Collective responsibility doesn’t mean states are off the hook. Public sociability is also more than chatting or sex with strangers. Concerned with the regard we show others, public sociability provides a tissue through which more public forms of responsibility are accessed, supported and fought for: the passengers who dial 999 while helping a collapsed traveller or person hanging out in the subway to breathe; the struggle for refugee applicants to be housed and able to work because they are part of a place, such as London, which identifies itself as made-up of strangers.
Today, when horrific stories of random killings and right-wing nationalism fill the press, it may seem trivial (even obscene) to talk of stranger play. Yet, given the very real risk that tragedy produces its own alienations and targets in those who become classified as dangerous or threatening, extending public sociability seems essential. Calls for public change are easily uttered. The far harder task is addressing the material pressures and inequalities which produce our current reality.
Maybe there is room here for prefigurative politics, not to deny the necessity of large-scale socio-economic changes, but in the meantime to inhabit and give shape to a different, more expansive and positive set of permissions when it comes to stranger encounters.