Ben and Sophie SP
Stranger Perceptions Collaboration
Sophie and I talked to three shopkeepers on Sunday afternoon, the owner of the Gamer's Grotto, a man at Fiddlehead, and a woman at Knapp's Underground. We had a few strategies going in to these conversations: pretend that we were having a debate between us about how others perceive us, ask people if they thought we were the type of people that would be doing whatever they were doing (or buying whatever they were selling), or simply ask for their opinions point blank.
Gamer's Grotto This was in my opinion the most honest, connected and insightful conversation we had. It was also the first. We dropped in during a very busy hour at the Gamer's Grotto, as they were hosting a Magic tournament. Sophie and I wandered around for a bit, and were eventually approached by the owner as we were admiring the store hedgehog ("Sonic"). We started talking to him about the tournament, and then shifted the conversation towards what kinds of people came to these tournaments. As he was about to head off, we told him that we were having a debate between us about how people perceive us, but framed the question in a gamer context (e.g. what is your perception of us as gamers?). He was pleasantly honest, made reference to our attractiveness and pleasantness and how that might make many think we were not gamers given the stereotypes. As a shop-owner involved in gaming culture who sees the whole range of gamer types, he said he thought we represented the average gamer, as many aren't the hygiene-deficient, socially inept type that people expect. I was pleased that he jumped out of the context of gaming for a bit and told us his honest opinion of how he perceived us. He was curious why we were interested in the subject, and we told him more about how people don't normally expect us to be gamers (a lie, but it's actually somewhat true for me). This topic got him talking for another five minutes, and in all I really enjoyed the conversation. At parting, he made a reference to how he wanted to name the hedgehog Amy originally, but I didn't get the reference (Amy is the only female hedgehog in the Sonic franchise, I now know) so he said "see, you really are an average gamer."
Fiddlehead We had a good conversation with the guy behind the counter at Fiddlehead gallery. We tripped up a bit avoiding a specific answer to the question "where are you from," but he ignored that thankfully. Unfortunately we never had a good opportunity to actually ask him his opinion of us, but it was a good exercise in maintaining unspecified identities.
Knapp's Underground We were hoping that there would be some eccentric types shopping here that we could chat up. Alas, it was just the shopkeeper. They were closing, so we just asked her point blank, using the context of a debate again, what she thought of us. It took her by surprise, and she gave us a squinted look, but eventually started talking. She had only kind things to say--"friendly people" and "nice couple"--and followed us out the door to close the shop, muttering "chivalrous!" as I held the door and other pleasantries as we walked away.
Conversation with a Stranger Pt. II (What Do You Think of Us?)
Ben and I went into town this Sunday in search of some conversation and some snap-insight into our identities. The streets were a bit empty, and the town was positively swamped with parents of Bennington College students, so it seemed our best bet was interactions with shopkeepers. I think back to Social Acupuncture because truly, we could find no means of social interaction that were independent from a setting of capitalism. We had three conversations in three locations around town: The Gamer's Grotto, Fiddleheads and Knapp's (these being, in my opinion, some of the most odd and distinctly 'Bennington' businesses in town). The small-town environment made conversation quite natural, and indeed lingering in a specific way, we rarely had time to start up a conversation before the shopkeep beat us to it. In each store, we utilized a different approach to achieving our goal of getting the townsperson to tell us what kind of people they thought we were.
The Gamer's Grotto was the busiest place we went, but most of the people there were beyond our abilities of engagement, being preoccupied with a Magic the Gathering tournament. The shopkeep, noticing our curious observation of the battles, came up to us and we began by talking about the Grotto and the gaming scene (people come from an hour radius just to play Magic here in Bennington), and we gently led the conversation to how we would appear in the gamer culture-sphere. He talked a bit about the deficit between the quite negative public opinion of gamers, and the realities of them based on his own experience. He said we might appear to outsiders to be too attractive/artistic to play Magic, but in his personal opinion, within the incredibly broad spectrum of actual gamers, we do not deviate too far off the beaten path.
Next we went to Fiddlehead's. The store finds its home in a building, we learned, that had been a bank from the thirties all the way into the late 90s before being bought and repurposed by its current owner. The main fare of the store is local and American-made craft objects, but there were also a few showrooms of animation cells and old beer signs within the old-style vaults from the building's past life as a bank. The shopkeep talked to us for a while about how the store's website had gone up just the other day. He also said that we seemed artistic, and that we should send any friends interested in selling their wares to the contact page of the website. We used a more naturalistic approach in this conversation by letting it meander its way into the arena of identity, as opposed to framing the question of identity within the context of the situation.
Our last stop was Knapp's, a sort of odds and ends pet store/toy store/music store. Our only discussion with the shopkeeper was rather brief as it was just about closing time, so as she tended the sale of some pet supplies to Ben, we decided to just pounce and say that we were having a dispute about what people think of us, and that her outsider's opinion would be much appreciated. She laughed and said that she had nothing bad to say, and that we were a likable pair.
What I noticed most was the general good nature that connected these three interactions. When social exchange occurs on such a relatively small scale/with such low stakes, the possibility of a sour remark seem to go way down. It takes a certain amount of social comfort (through extended exposure and familiarity) to venture into situations of social discomfort. That is to say, that there is a certain decorum attached to interactions with strangers, although I do think it was easier for the people we spoke with to open up as they would pick up some of our familiarity with each other and go forward in that tone themselves.