Conversations with Strangers: The Interconnected Nature of Love

Graphics by Emma Chang
February 27, 2024

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon when I boarded the 49 to Capitol Hill with an exciting (albeit daunting) objective in mind: to conduct street interviews revolving around the topic of love. As for my approach, I was still pondering this as I swiped my U-Pass, took a seat on the bus, and watched the prosaic residential hall buildings on Northeast Campus Parkway give way to the vibrant rainbow crosswalks and graffitied walls of Broadway Street. 

In my pursuit of interviews about love, I was inspired equally by the New York Times column Modern Love, full of raw, relatable vignettes that capture relationships in every stage, and social media influencer Hunter Prosper, known for asking people, “Who is your greatest love and why did you fall in love with them?” during street interviews. I have slight qualms with this question, because while it’s open-ended, it’s clearly biased toward romantic love. From the interviewee’s perspective, self love seems nearly off the table at risk of sounding egotistical, and although platonic love can be profound, most people associate their “greatest” love with their romantic partner. I took note of this, and decided that in my interviews, I didn’t want to reinforce the idea that romantic love supersedes other types of love—the media already portrays this enough. Rather, romance exists as one of various forms of love, a mere complement to platonic, self, and nonhuman love. Breaking my questions up into these four categories, I asked strangers to choose one or two groupings that are most central to their lives. From there, my questions were based on the categories they chose.

Elliott Bay Bookstore was not only a reprieve from the rain, but it became the home for my social experiment. My first interview subject was a woman named Erin, who looked kind and unassuming. I could tell she was nervous, so I did my best to make the interview feel conversational. I learned early on that Erin is a mom and works at the hospital. I never directly asked her about this, but as she answered my queries, she opened up about her most salient identities. And while I don’t know Erin’s last name, I do know that she feels like her most authentic self in nature. I don’t know her birthday, but I do know that she helps people, and more importantly, is aware of her influence on others’ lives.

“I’m a nurse, so I have a lot of interactions with people that aren’t long or sustained, and I know that they’re impactful,” Erin explained when I asked her if there are restrictions when it comes to platonic love. She agreed that platonic love can be concurrently momentary and momentous; this type of connection doesn’t need to be showcased through full-fledged relationships. In terms of self love, Erin brought up a terrific point about the expectations that society puts on individuals to stay busy and how this can detract from engaging in self love. “We don’t spend a lot of time with ourselves,” she said. Instead, we’re expected to be social all of the time. “People know where you are, [you are] all the time accessible,” Erin elaborated wearily. She clearly understood how it felt to fall prey to these obligations. Devoting oneself to a relationship is a huge sacrifice, and can make it extremely difficult for a person to feel whole on their own when they are used to prioritizing others. Yet Erin expanded on this topic of give and take and the balance between the two, explaining, “It doesn’t necessarily have to be give and take. I think we always have to be a little bit cautious about giving more than you get, but there’s a time and a place for you to be giving in life, and a time and place sometimes where you just get, and it’s not always with the same people.”

As I searched for another interviewee, John stood out to me. He was browsing for books with a camera in his left hand, and perhaps it was this visible sign of a fellow creative that drew me to him. “For the same reason I think hurt people hurt people, it's difficult for people who haven't found a clear path of loving themselves to love other people,” John said, identifying how the relationship someone has with themselves translates to how they connect with others. He described how he has bridged the gap between self and non-human love as a photographer: taking pictures has helped John appreciate the beauty in the people and the places that he interacts with. When someone thinks of nonhuman love, “Your mind goes to a pet, right? But for me, it went to photography… It results in more human or more platonic love, in the sense of I enjoy the people I meet, and I enjoy the stories that I hear as a result of being out and about... It definitely results in a lot of human connection. But the art, the study of it, the idea that if I find myself with time alone, I know I can dig into this and be content, feels good. It goes a long way.”

So what separates nonhuman love from relationships with other people? John references the “stoic principle” of focusing on what is in someone’s control as opposed to what isn't. “I think some of that non-human, passionate, hobby-based love or romanticism about a project is more comfortable because it's a little bit more in your control. And for good, maybe, I don't know… the more I think about it, the more I can go either way.” I agree with John. A relationship between two people lacks the consistency and dependence that one has to nature, animals, or even their passions. The power dynamic isn’t bidirectional; instead, the sole person in the relationship has more power, and it is up to them to monopolize this agency in order to connect with their subject. A person does the doing, whether that is walking through a trail or listening to a song—not the other way around.

When I asked the same question to my next interview subject, John’s assumption rang true. Marley’s relationship with their dog immediately came to mind. “It's about having a relationship with something that's not the same species or even the same form as me—we're not connecting in a human way,” they began. Instead, the connection between animal and human is innate: it’s “physical, instinctual, and non-communicative,” as Marley described, which they “personally find very, very powerful.” Marley admitted they aren’t “necessarily always really good at somatic feeling, but the one place I do feel very in touch with my body and my instinct is when I'm in the wilderness, or when I'm hanging out with my dog. That relationship feels so strong and real, even though there's not this human level of interaction. And for me, it's all the more profound for that. It’s where I feel the most at peace, the most calm.” In both cases, the bond between a person and a nonhuman form of life transcends the language barrier.

Marley brought up how often the relationship dynamic between owner and pet is hierarchical, but in their case, “It truly feels like she's not even a friend or family. We share our lives together and we have this connection that’s based on our instincts.” Marley and their dog can communicate with each other “purely through emotion and sensing each other.” Their bond is a testament to the truth about love: at its core, love is not grandiose. It is raw, stripped down, and relies on actions, familiarity, and quality time over sumptuous gestures. “There’s something about taking away the humanness and still having a relationship, whether it's with an animal or with nature, that feels real and powerful,” Marley concluded.

This interview was special—for alongside Marley sat Mak, Mariah, Rei, and Sarya. These five twentysomethings, who form their own strong, supportive community, were eager to participate in a spontaneous group interview I led in the back of the bookstore. We formed a circle on the hardwood floor and took the time and space to do this dialogue justice. Five friends and one stranger sat criss-cross-applesauce in the kids’ section, next to The Very Hungry Caterpillar and whatever else kids are reading these days. Six people listened, laughed, and bantered, snapping their fingers and “mmmm”ing to indicate someone resonated with an idea. Six people were vulnerable and candid about what love meant to them. 

Mak felt called to discuss how nonhuman love is tied to physical and sensory-based experiences. “When I think a lot about love outside of human connection, I feel like my capacity to love these things is rooted in how I connect to humans. I also feel like it's the reverse: how I connect to humans is in relationship to how I connect with the things around me… It’s really grounded in the physical aspects of Earth, like water and different kinds of land.” They continued, exclaiming, “I love touching grass! If someone ever tells me something and they're like, ‘touch grass’, I'm like, ‘you know what? I will.’ And I think for me, that's very sensory-based.” Mak brought up the dichotomy of love, saying, “That's what's a little bit different compared to the other kinds of love—for me, I feel like they're more feeling intuitively versus connecting to other things.” Nonhuman love is “very physical… one of my favorite things is live music. I love feeling it in my body, I love feeling it in my head, I love seeing all the lights, the production. And that's a really sensory-filled experience. To me, that is feeling self love… being connected by an environment around me… it helps me learn how to love the people in my life, because I know what love of Earth and music feels like.”

As I rode back to campus on the 49, I thought about how the “strangers” I’d met today in the bookstore have revolutionized the way I give, receive, and perceive love. No wonder We’re Not Really Strangers has become such a popular card game, and that the questions on each card bear remarkable resemblance to the ones I asked in my interview—these queries seek to contextualize and understand the fundamentals of a person. Sometimes all it takes is an hour’s worth of vulnerable discourse to convey that love is not simply a feeling or an action. It cannot be compartmentalized, because inevitably, the types start to bleed together: nonhuman love converges with self love, and romantic love stems from platonic love. Coming into this social experiment, I’d expected romantic and platonic love to be the most popular choices, and was baffled when self and nonhuman love were chosen time and time again. It made me wonder, why is it so surprising and rare to prioritize ourselves, and how can we challenge the stigma surrounding self love? 

Love stitches together the framework of community, yet it’s also individualistic. To Vivian, this means a self-care day, complete with exercise and a sweet treat. Mariah shows herself love by taking care of her hair, which is a “deeply personal, emotional, and loving process.” In Rei’s case, to love is to be radically honest about their boundaries and capacity to show up for their friends and family. For Sarya, love is about exploring what it means to care for people fearlessly, deviating from the societal norms and heteronormative constraints in the process. 

And for me? Love is about connection, whether it’s a relationship that spans over years or an organic moment with some strangers at a bookstore. It’s authenticity, and being comfortable with someone or something through chemistry and intuition alike. It is as much internal as it is external. Furthermore, my definition of nonhuman love was completely reframed, thanks to John, Marley, and Mak. Seated alongside animals, nature, and passions, words like dependency, control, transcendent, intuitive, stripped-down, and sensory-oriented now come to mind.

I’m still discovering the countless nuances of love, but hearing others’ unique perspectives on this universal phenomenon—especially when they came from unfamiliar faces—has inspired me to love more openly and deeply. My conversations with strangers taught me the interconnectedness of love is always at play, whether visible or inconspicuous.

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