Encountering Strangers

In my opinion most people of New York are not as friendly as other people, which is why it took so much courage for me to approach a stranger with such random questions. When I actually went out to approach people I had a difficult time choosing whom I would talk to. Some people may be having a bad day and might come off as “crabby” or maybe someone would talk entirely too much.


So, I was riding to 169th Street Station after visiting my family from back home one night and there was a man standing next to me in the subway car. He had on dusty Timberland boots with blue pants and a black jacket. He also wore a dusty black pack back over one shoulder. I turned to him and politely spoke to him and we engaged in a conversation. I discovered that he was on his way home to family. So, I asked him how was his Thanksgiving and he replied “ohh..It was pretty good.” but he really seemed unsure. We continued to talk about New York and we even talk about St. John’s University. Throughout the conversation his tone did change at times. After a while I sat down and I quickly glanced over and the train was passing through a station and I hear “36th street, 36th street, 36th street, 36th street….oh no I can’t see it anymore” and more random babbling. I looked up again and it was the man I was talking to then I figured that this man was a sort of crazy; it just got weirder from that point on. I only approached him because he was a complete stranger and that’s what the assignment was about. I assumed he was a worker because I saw a stigma symbol – dusty work boots and blue pants. I guess since I thought that he might be employed I didn’t think that he would be crazy.


The second person I talked to is not a stranger at all but I never really had a “deep” conversation with him per se. He is a close friend of my two roommates and he came to our room one day. We were all talking about random things and I asked him “what was the bravest thing you’ve ever done”? He replied with a smile and told me about the time he was in the food court of a mall and he ran across the food court to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a woman who was choking. I was very surprised at his response because my virtual social identity of him was that he wasn’t really brave or intelligent enough to do anything out of the ordinary.

The third person I encountered was a stranger in Montgoris Dining Hall on Campus. I walked up to and employee who works in the office. I asked her “why do all the employees get mad when we try to take food out of here”? She gave me the longest explanation. I also asked her “why did she work here and how did she get the job”? She told me that she went to school for management and St. John’s had an open opportunity so she took it. I didn’t think that she went to school; I thought she probably got lucky and landed a job randomly at St. John’s.  But her actual social identity was that she was an educated employee. 


One response to “Encountering Strangers

  1. What a remarkable range of encounters, K! Great work applying key concepts from Goffman and in describing the way you put together information to arrive at some kind of “virtual social identity” and how came to revise your initial assumptions and interpretations of symbolic information. It’s interesting that in your first encounter, the signs you took to mean he was okay to talk to — the “blue-collar” attire, which you interpreted as a sign he was employed — were signs you categorized as “stigma symbols.” Although there are certainly contexts where such attire would be stigmatized, I wouldn’t say blue-collar work is stigmatized in a very public and “popular” context like the subway.

    I’m especially pleased by what you managed to learn through your third encounter with the dining hall employee. I would guess that most St John’s students would probably be surprised as well to learn that many people on the staff of the dining hall and other campus facilities have earned — or are earning — college degrees. But it’s impressive that you took the time to find out. Some students graduate without ever having a conversation with a member of the dining hall staff, though they may have been served by them practically every day.

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