NOT JUST ANOTHER STRANGER.
A conversation about worth, loneliness and the impact of words.
If you have a look at our latest collection you’ll notice that on a few of the pieces there are four simple words: Not Just Another Stranger.
As we built the meaning of this collection and later its designs, we knew we wanted a phrase that would challenge people to think and look a little bit harder when encountering someone on the outside of their immediate world. We wanted people to think twice about the ones who are easily and often dismissed because of their status, their differences, and perhaps even their looks. We wanted to remind every person who encounters this collection that the outsider to society is not just another stranger waiting to be passed by, but they are someone. Someone who is filled with so much worth, value and potential, and someone who is as much a part of humanity as anyone else.
And to make this meaning even more tangible to anyone who encounters it, we decided to speak to someone who knows a whole lot about humans and how words such as ‘stranger’ and ‘someone’ affect us. So, meet Scott McCrum, MBPsS, Masters Psychology Graduate. Or as we see it, Super-Intelligent-Really-Brilliant-Professional-Nerd!
With his wealth of knowledge on the subject of psychology as well as 6+ years of working closely with vulnerable young people, Scott gave us so much incredible insight into why these words hold more weight than we may realise.
Miranda, Social Impact Officer at OutsideIn, and I sat down with Scott over Zoom to discuss the nitty gritty details about the meaning behind the collection, delving into the psychology behind its meaning. Among many other interesting facts and figures about the human brain, we spoke about why the practical outworking of the meaning of STRANGERS, MADE SOMEONE. plays a huge role in the psychological wellbeing of humanity. We also discussed why this meaning is so vital to young people, those experiencing homelessness in particular (the focus for the social impact of this collection), as they develop their neurological pathways and as they discover the essence of humanity and their place within it.
Every human being is made of several key elements: psychological, physical and emotional elements. Or as we commonly know; mind, body and soul. Each of these is no more important than the other but rather the three of these working in unison and cared for properly are the things that lead to true inside-out kind of health. To neglect one of these would undoubtedly have an impact on another and ultimately, it could cause great harm.
With this in mind, consider the impact of the word ‘stranger’. While this may not seem like much, to someone who feels like a stranger this word can significantly impact their emotional wellbeing and how they view themselves by making them feel unwanted, unwelcomed and misunderstood. In turn, these internal effects can cause external results; impacting the individual’s body language, their physical health, and how they present themselves to others.
Scott explained to us that when considering the word ‘stranger’ in particular, we have to consider that this word evokes loneliness and in turn, loneliness evokes significant physical reactions.
“As humans we are crafted to be social animals where we are built to be around other people. Because of this, social relationships are a fundamental part of emotional fulfillment, behavioural adjustment, cognitive function and more! This simply means that social environments help us to build the way we feel, the way we think, and the way we act. And similarly, a lack of social environments also impacts each of these things.”
Scott went on to explain to us that this connection can be seen most easily through heartbreak whereby sometimes the emotional impact of a changing social environment such as heartbreak, can so severely affect our actions and physicality that the heartbroken individual will need painkillers to ease their pain.
We applied this idea to the situation of homelessness whereby an individual experiencing homelessness may exhibit extreme physical and cognitive reactions such as pain, bodily breakdowns, mental illness, and drastic character changes due to an unexpected or prolonged homeless situation, or the traumatic experiences that may have led them to that circumstance.
Scott went on to explain how homelessness and other highly stressful situations can physically affect a person’s brain:
“The way the brain develops is really interesting. There’s something called neuroplasticity which is basically the sponginess of the brain, and this is significant at two points in our lives. The first is in the first two years of our lives where we are fresh and learning all sorts of new things about the world around us, and the second wave of plasticity comes during puberty and adolescence where the brain is again learning, adapting and changing to what’s around us.
“The brain is split up into 3 parts: the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for our logic, the way we think, and our decision making. Then the back of the brain is responsible for our emotions and the way we feel. And finally the middle is responsible for our instincts or our fight or flight survival modes. What’s interesting is when we hit adolescence we start to develop backwards meaning that our fight or flight survival instincts develop first, then our emotions develop (which is why in teenagehood a lot of logic is thrown out the window and we can get a bit too emotional about things!), and then the final thing to develop in our adolescence is our logic which is more or less fully developed around 25. What all this means is that when it comes to loneliness and isolation, two things commonly present in homeless situations, there are a lot of things that shut off and hinder this development.
“When we’re hit with stresses or anxiety triggers,our brain shuts off different parts in different stages. The first to shut off is our logic, then our emotions, and finally our survival instincts. When you’re living in desperate conditions you are not thinking logically or using emotions to gage what to do, you are purely thinking about how you’re going to survive.”
Like the age-old saying going, don’t judge a book by its cover. Scott’s insight reminded us about why it is so important to get to know someone’s story before making an assumption based off of what we see of them on the surface. Often the people we quickly consider to be a stranger because of their actions or their circumstances are the people who have gone through, or are still going through, a fight for their survival. Scott reminded us that it is so important to use our own logic and empathy when looking at others because we can very easily miss the truth about their lives when we don’t.
Scott later explained that in order to bring the brain back to full function, you have to create a safe space for these vulnerable people and give them the social connection they need in order to begin to recover. To explain this in more detail, Scott referenced a study called Harlow’s Monkeys (which you can read more about here!) This study details the importance of care, safety and security in moving towards psychological recovery.
This personal care and connection outlined in this study is something that is extremely important to OutsideIn. We really believe that when you look past the stereotypes of homelessness, you see that there is a real person, with a real story, and a real need for the recognition of their humanity.
Our newest collection, STRANGERS, MADE SOMEONE. is about exactly that - recognising humanity. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is by acknowledging an individual as a someone. We are all familiar with the connotations of this word - when you are someone you have worth, when you are someone you have value, and when you are someone you mean something. Without even realising it, this word can have a huge influence not just on how we see others, but on how we treat them too. As can the word ‘stranger’.
Scott explains why this is so:
“I love this topic! It’s so interesting because this goes into the psychology of language. There is this idea called ‘priming’ where certain words shape and influence you to do certain things and to respond in certain ways. There is a lot of power in words and a lot of power in priming that we don’t always realise. So, when you say the word ‘stranger’ the first things that come to mind are ideas that society has written into our brain and that immediately influence our reactions. ‘Stranger danger’ is a really common example of the priming around this word and how the connotations of it lead to a fear of strangers even though not all strangers are dangerous. Priming is even further emphasised by the media and the ideas the media will incubate about certain words. And so before you know so much as a name, there is already a massive unconscious pull away from anyone described as a ‘stranger’.
“This is the same with the word ‘someone’. However in this case, that unconscious pull is towards the goal of being a someone. The connotations that come with this word make us believe that being someone means you are important, you are recognised, you are wanted, and all these other status-lifting ideas. So whichever word it is, when you say a significant word all sorts of thoughts are being primed unconsciously. In fact there’s a study that says about 5% of our thinking is conscious and about 95% of our thinking is unconscious! Often our behaviour is influenced by this unconscious thinking, especially with words such as ‘homeless’ which come with so much priming ‘baggage’.”
What is so interesting about this idea is that in the lead up to this collection we asked you, our wider Oi Fam, what the words ‘stranger’ and ‘someone’ meant to you. Looking back, it's crazy to see that so many people believed the same things about these words. This showed us that there truly is a very strong unconscious narrative, and it challenged us to work even harder to break down the negative connotations we place on those who are strangers to us and replace them with the positivity that is connected to the idea of being a someone.
And this positivity, much like the impact of heartbreak we touched on earlier, holds significant power in how it affects a person’s physical and psychological demeanour. Scott explains this in more detail:
“Where to start! There’s neurological things that go on, there’s behavioural things that go on, and there’s physical things that go on. Vulnerability is a huge part of this. When we give someone the sense of being a someone, we are unconsciously giving them value. The way this outworks itself physically takes many forms. But an example would be looking someone in the eyes and raising your eyebrows in acknowledgement of what they are trying to communicate with you. When we do this we are subconsciously communicating, “I see you and I recognise you.” This gives someone a great sense of worth and appreciation, and it provides a safe space for vulnerability.
“Individuals who are experiencing homelessness are just as sensitive to these signs as anyone else. And so when we look away from them, ignore them, walk past quickly to avoid them, we communicate the opposite. In turn, this makes these individuals feel even more isolated and excluded, completely robbing them of a safe place for vulnerability and connection. Can you imagine what it must feel like for these individuals when someone does look at them, when someone does acknowledge them, and when someone does truly see them for the human that they are. The human that we all are.”
Scott noted another very interesting study to show the impact of a positive social environment and social connection. In this study two groups of rats were placed into two different settings with a normal and a morphine-laced water source each. The one group was in very poor conditions with only a few other rats, very limited room and very little freedom. In this group, the rats were drawn to, and soon dependent on, the morphine-laced water source. In the second group, the rats were in a bigger environment with more space, more freedom and more rats! This group used the normal water. When the morphine-dependent rats from the first group were placed into the second group's environment, they slowly weaned themselves off of the morphine-laced water. What this study displays is the significance of a healthy social environment and how an unhealthy social environment can lead to destructive dependencies such as drug abuse. The serotonin produced by social connection overpowered that which was produced by a chemical drug.
This study, like so much of the other thoughts Scott has shared, further emphasises the importance of extending care to the stranger, and to creating environments where people are made to feel and believe that they are someone. You can read more about the Rat Park Study here!
With the introduction of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have experienced a similar sense of isolation to these rats. Yet, for so many individuals experiencing homelessness this is just the norm. Isolation is not unusual, loneliness is all too familiar, and a lack of connection is unfortunately something that is expected. While many of us feel a great weight from the impact of these things in our lives, for many individuals experiencing homelessness there is a sense that this just comes with that territory.
Our hope as OutsideIn is that during this time where we are gaining an understanding of the difficulties that come with extreme isolation, much like that which will be experienced in a homeless situation, our empathy and our compassion will be stretched, and that it will reach the lives of those who feel like they are strangers.
“In order to engage in this empathy we have to challenge the unconscious sets of bias we spoke about earlier. When we can break these down, we can break through to those who need this empathy, social connection and care the most.
“When we encounter someone who is homeless we need to ask ourselves the question, am I looking at them or am I seeing them. The difference between looking and seeing is huge! When you look at something or someone, you can look away. But when you choose to see something or someone, you can’t un-see it. When you make the step to see someone, to engage with them, to learn their name, to buy them a coffee, to show them a sense of humanity, you make the step towards change.”
Change that not only impacts that one individual life, but that impacts the world. All change requires is the decision to see, to acknowledge, and to act. When it comes to the people in our spheres, our worlds, and our society at large, we have to challenge ourselves with the question Scott so beautifully shared: Are we looking? Or are we seeing?
Our hope is that through this collection, through its meaning and its impact, you would be reminded and encouraged to see. Be it the commuter you pass by on your way to work, the shop assistant who hands you your item off the top shelf, the friend you haven't spoken to in years, or the person experiencing homelessness everyone tries to shy away from, we hope that this conversation with Scott will inspire you to see them. Really see them. And as you do, we hope that you will find yourself in awe of the beauty of humanity that shines through them when they’re offered just a sprinkling of kindness, compassion and empathy.
In Scott’s words, “Strangers are opportunities.”
And we hope that you take hold of them and seize them, giving them all the energy, care, and acknowledgement they deserve.
Speak soon Oi Fam,
P.S. For the full interview with Scott, check out our YouTube Channel!