Why we have a moral duty to acknowledge strangers

Being shunned causes acute social pain. So is greeting people we don’t know a social convention, or an ethical obligation?

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Here is an interesting bit of human behaviour. If a stranger meets our eye and smiles benignly as they pass us on the street, most of us will smile back. If a stranger addresses us politely, many of us will stop and listen to them. And, if a stranger asks us for the time, for directions, or for us to watch their bag for a minute, many of us will try to help.

In fact, in specific places – wooded paths, mountain trails and friendly towns – we tend to go further and share a pleasantry with almost every stranger we meet.

This behaviour is surprising, since we share no history with the stranger and we don’t expect to get to know them either. It seems we neither stand to benefit from answering them nor stand to suffer from ignoring them. So why do we engage?

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah observes in The Honour Code that “when you glance at another person on the street and your eyes meet in mutual acknowledgement, both of you are expressing a fundamental human need, and both of you are responding – instantaneously and without effort – to that need you identify in each other”.

That need is, first and foremost, a need for connection. The social psychologist, Barbara Fredrickson, says in Love 2.0 that “eye contact may well be the most potent trigger for connection and oneness”.

When our eyes lock in a friendly gaze with someone, or when we share a pleasantry with them, we enjoy what Fredrickson calls a micro-moment of connection: a beautifully choreographed biological dance unfolds between us in which our brain chemistries and heart rhythms briefly synchronise.

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Such moments of synchronisation are vital for our physical and mental health. And our capacity to share in such moments depends on our exercising those heart and brain muscles. Fredrickson says that when it comes to friendliness, our hearts, minds and bodies obey the biological law: use it or lose it.

A colleague of mine, who suffers from social anxiety, depression and isolation, told me recently that she thrives off micro-moments of connection with strangers. Like most introverts, she finds long periods of contact with people draining. She finds extended conversations, big parties and even lengthy phone calls with friends exhausting.

This is because she is prone to rumination. She will chew over every interaction she has and criticise herself for every word she utters. For her, micro-connections are a blessing because they’re short. They don’t ask much of her or of the other person. They don’t give her much fodder to chew over. And yet, they still give her that invaluable sense of connection. 

Acknowledging and being acknowledged by strangers does more than give us a simple way to briefly connect with people. It reassures us at a deeper level that we are accepted, that we are seen and that we have value. An acknowledgement – especially from a stranger – tells us that we are not beneath this person’s notice. They owe us nothing and yet they have chosen to see us.

Since micro-connections promise such great goods for us and for the people we share them with, do we have a duty to acknowledge strangers who try to reach out to us?

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I have asked this question of many people – from friends and family to academic colleagues and even a former high court justice – and I have usually been greeted with mild surprise. “No,” most people reply, “we aren’t obliged to acknowledge any old stranger who tries to get our attention.”

Their general thought seems to be that, if we acknowledge a stranger’s bid for our attention, we are being polite and well mannered; we’re showing a kind of universal courtesy as a matter of etiquette or social convention. But it is a convention we could reasonably disregard if we wished, without any compunction or guilt.

This attitude – that we could reasonably abandon any custom of acknowledging strangers – shows up in some typical behaviours in Western societies. In the same way that we often acknowledge and assist strangers, so too do we snub them. Or at least, we snub particular kinds of strangers.

Many of us walk past flyer-holders, survey-conductors and donation-seekers without a glance. Most of us ignore buskers, even when the busker is a world-renowned violinist: in 2007, of the more than a thousand people who walked past the virtuoso Joshua Bell playing a 43-minute set in the Washington, DC metro, only seven people stopped to listen to him for more than a minute. More worryingly, most of us hurry along when the person bidding for our attention isn’t a violinist, but a homeless person asking for spare change.  

These moments are revealing. They show that, sometimes, we lean on the licence society gives us to snub those who are powerless and stigmatised. Such moments also show that we are probably less likely to respond when we detect a non-trivial burden behind someone’s overture.

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We may also keep moving when the stranger bidding for our attention doesn’t meet our eye. The key role direct eye contact plays in our sense of connection may explain why we might answer the stranger walking toward us, but ignore the one sitting down, pressed against a building, literally placed beneath our notice.

Gregory P Smith, who spent more than two decades living on the streets in Australia, has said that being ignored – feeling unseen – was the hardest part about being homeless. He found his invisibility so traumatic that he was grateful when police or passers-by beat him up. At least they chose to see him, he thought. Eventually, Smith retreated into the Australian bush to live as a hermit for a decade in order to avoid being “blanked” by humanity.

Ostracism – the experience of being ignored or shunned – causes us genuine pain. It is social pain, and it affects the same part of the brain that registers physical pain. As the psychologist Kipling Williams notes, we can feel acute social pain not only when our loved ones ignore us, but also when strangers turn away from us.

The reality of ostracism should make us pause and ask again: do we have a duty to acknowledge strangers who reach out to us? Do we, perhaps, even have a duty to be the one who reaches out first? If so, then saying “hello” to strangers is a moral matter, and we cannot breezily disregard the pull to be social as mere etiquette: to ignore a stranger would be to do something wrong.

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One reason to think we are morally obliged to acknowledge strangers, especially vulnerable ones, starts with respect. The philosopher Leslie Green argues that we have a duty to think respectfully about the people who come within our “general sphere of concern”. This includes the people who are near enough to us to address us directly. We have a duty to think about them and to think about them respectfully, Green says. This means thinking about their needs – including their need to be seen, to connect and to matter.

Respect goes both ways. If someone’s bid for our attention is aggressive, they fail to show us proper respect. In fact, if someone’s bid says, “Recognise me as your superior who may demand your attention!”, then we have no duty to acknowledge them. But if someone’s bid says “Please see that I am human”, then we do.

This duty can, of course, be overridden. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we should all wear masks, even though this means we’ll enjoy fewer micro-connections on the street, since we cannot see each other’s faces and are not all equally good at spotting a “smize” (smiling with one’s eyes).

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Moreover, the duty to acknowledge strangers is a duty to be shared equitably, and yet it’s a duty borne disproportionality by certain groups. Many a supermarket cashier and receptionist has worked overtime to satisfy others’ needs for micro-connections. And many a doctor has noted how many people come to their office each day because they’re lonely and want to talk. 

But none of these issues diminishes the central point that micro-connections – with strangers and with friends – offer us a great mutual benefit: the giving and receiving of a basic social good – connection – as well as a confirmation that we are worthy of respect. This is why we should say “hello” to strangers.

Kimberley Brownlee is a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of Being Sure of Each Other: An Essay on Social Rights and Freedoms.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, senior research fellow in philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.

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