Monday, April 26, 2004

The Freedom of Strangers

Yesterday, I went to a dinner party at a friend's house. We didn't know most of the people there, including two families from Great Britain, one English, one half Welsh. At first, we trolled our way through the common topics, asking about their holiday, discussing the weather and other small talk. Then, the discussion gradually migrated to topics not usually raised in these sort of settings. Religion seemed a relatively obvious one seeing as two of the visitors were Anglican priests, but we also delved into politics and terrorism.

While these might not be traditionally acceptable topics and are ones most people veer away from in horror, the discussion fascinated me. We all seemed to be enjoying ourselves. Our hostess commented at one point that she was very impressed. We'd managed to discussion both politics and religion, the two taboo subjects, while remaining civil.

We were aided by our similar positions on both US and British politics, but still, there were moments when one or more stood out in opposition to the group. Despite some differences, the discussion never became aggressive.

Honestly, I'm rather awkward in social situations where dating, clubbing, shopping and the like are traditionally discussed because I have not had much experience with these things. Give me a good political or philosophical discussion though, and I fit right in.

What struck me later is the freedom we all had. Only our hosts knew everyone, and even then didn't know them for long. There was little need to ensure we could face each other over a desk in the morning or at the playground while our kids ran wild. We could say what we believed with no real repercussions. Oddly, this may have allowed us to explore each other's character in a way we normally cannot except with our true intimates. I walked away with a good sense of who people were and the understanding that they knew a bit of how I think. I may have made some true friends, though long distance ones, all because I didn't have to shield my words or thoughts for fear of consequences.

Have we reached a point where we can only be open with strangers? Has the kindness of strangers changed from physical to emotional care? We all wear masks because it is how we're trained to deal with different social situations. I'm an introvert and yet have held roles in life that require me to be very extroverted. The extroversion is a mask I don to handle situations, rarely revealing more than a caricature of myself because of the consequences an ill-favored opinion might have. So, I ask you, with who can you just be yourself? And how many of those strong friendships were forged because, at the beginning when meeting as strangers, you had nothing to lose?