Living with strangers
All cultures and societies have unspoken rules and etiquettes that an outsider simply will not understand. Whether it’s in Minnesota where greeting everyone is considered compulsory or New York City where addressing a stranger would make you seem mental. This observation is what has inspired author Siri Hustvedt to write her essay “Living With Strangers” in 2002. The title refers to a paradox that is apparent in every major city, although never specifically mentioned in the essay: We are becoming increasingly isolated while being surrounded by more and more people. Siri Hustvedt describes this through an anecdote from her first apartment in New York. Even though she was living alone at the time, she depicts her neighbours as roommates because she was the witness to several acts that should remain private such as a heated argument from downstairs and walking around wearing only underwear. However, she did not know these people. They lived so close and (unintentionally) shared so many private moments and yet, Siri Hustvedt can still not see them as anything else other than “fellow New Yorkers”. That is why she is living with strangers.
One aspect of living with strangers that Siri Hustvedt is deeply fascinating by is the pretend-it-isn’t-happening-law, which is an extension of the previously mentioned etiquette about never greeting a person you do not know. It is a peculiar phenomenon because one would think that people move to the cities to be around other people and to get in contact with other lost souls when, in fact, most of the time is spent indoors or looking down at the ground in a crowded subway. Human interaction in a modern world is a complex subject to discuss and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to find a definite answer to how you actually should act. Should everyone do as in Minnesota or New York? Siri Hustvedt does not have an answer to this but this is why she chose to write an essay. It is simply a subjective collection of her thoughts on this issue that she has divided into three main parts, the first being her personal back-story. Not only does this provide the reader with a quick idea of who the author is and how she feels about moving to such a different place, but also more importantly, an introduction like this is eye catching which is vital in all genres. Feeling alone in a crowded place is an ironic notion but nonetheless a feeling that everyone living in a big city has experienced and thus the reader is able to relate to Siri Hustvedt. This personal connection establishes a certain sense of ethos that helps the author convince her audience throughout the essay.
Siri Hustvedt uses the second part of her essay to substantiate her theory about the urban laws that she introduced in the first part. She does so by telling a number of anecdotes all proving the same point: Every city has its nut cases who refuse to conform to the norms and expectations of this culture. However, these nut cases will never get a reaction because the onlookers are all chanting to themselves “pretend it isn’t happening, pretend it isn’t happening, pretend it isn’t happening…”. Once again, this seems familiar to the reader. It is rare that people want to get involved in something that is happening right next to them and this is what Siri Hustvedt discusses in the third and final part of her essay. Up to this point she has seemed very critical of the urban law of never getting involved but now she acknowledges the advantages. The fact of the matter is that getting involved can have a dangerous outcome which is proven by Siri Hustvedt’s husband’s anecdote about a man who was threatened on his life simply because he asked another man to put out his cigarette. Sure enough, such a threat is most likely nothing more than that: A threat. However, it is still a verbal attack on someone who broke the urban law and in some circumstances an action like that can have horrible consequences: “Taking action may be viewed as courageous or merely stupid, depending on the circumstances and your point of view.”.
As a counterpart to this anecdote, Siri Hustvedt goes on to tell yet another story, except this one has a happy ending. Her daughter, Sophie, was riding the subway when a stranger suddenly announced his undying love for her. She did what was expected of her and ignored him the best she could even though she felt deeply uncomfortable, until another person interrupted and actually helped her out just with a simple, witty comment: “By breaking the code, the man acknowledged himself as a witness to what, despite the pretence, had been a very public outburst.”. This anecdote provides the reader with an alternative to the pretend-it-isn’t-happening-law. This man chose to help a fellow New Yorker instead of being part of a passive audience. By stepping out of this predetermined role he not only put a smile on Sophie’s face but he also proves Siri Hustvedt final point of her essay which is that these breaches of the unspoken law might make some feel uneasy but it also opens up a window into another personality and another understanding of the world. A small part of the grey mass of people suddenly becomes real. The people of Minnesota do not become more real, simply because you greet them on the street in the same sense that the people of New York will remain strangers if you do not acknowledge their presence. The unspoken laws of a society might help people get by in a certain environment but ultimately it prevents us from thinking of others complexly. They are reduced to “fellow Minnesotans” or “fellow New Yorkers” instead of seeing them as they really are: People. To paraphrase a famous line from a classic 80’s film: We see them as we want to see them, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient d
 Hustvedt, Siri: ”Living With Strangers” 2002, p. 1, l. 1
 Ibid., p. 1, l. 6
 Ibid., p. 1, l. 10
 Ibid., p. 1, l. 13
 Hustvedt, Siri: ”Living With Strangers” 2002, p. 2, l. 53-55
 Ibid., p. 3, l. 91-92