As children, we were always taught to stay away from strangers: you shouldn’t take anything from them, you shouldn’t talk to them, you have no idea who they might be or what they might want. You’re always made to walk quickly past that scruffily-dressed person on the street, and nobody even looks at the busker beautifully playing the guitar in the corner. But why? Why do we have a chronic fear of people we don’t know? Why are we more trusting of a man in a suit than the guy wrapped in a tattered blanket on the pavement? What is it about people that makes us perceive them differently?

I was sent a message by a friend that contained a link to a really interesting story, which inspired this article. The message read: ” … I know myself I am guilty of assuming that anyone who stops me in the street wants something. A roughly dressed, unshaven man came out of nowhere on my journey out of Tower Hill Station. The only thing he said to me was ‘Excuse me, I don’t want any money?’ I feared for my safety and fled but never will find out what that man’s question really was.”

Obviously, my friend isn’t the only one who has done this.

How many times has somebody on the street come walking up to you? Okay, now how many times have you stopped to help? How many times have you walked away? Not everyone does this but by far the most common response is, like my friend, to flee the situation before they have a chance to corner you. Every time I’m in the city, without fail, somebody will try to stop me and ask for money. This has been happening to me for years now, ever since I was old enough to pass for a student with a bit of cash to spare (student? Cash? Ha!), but even though I don’t I’ll happily stop for a chat. When you think about it, that person will have been completely blanked so many times during the day that you want to stop – but something keeps you walking.

Going back to the message I received, my friend felt the need to point out that the man was “roughly dressed” and “unshaven” as he came towards her, telling her he didn’t want any money. When we look around, do we still see people in a social hierarchy, even though we don’t mean to? I’d like to say no, but we’re certainly more responsive to people dressed smartly. We aren’t often intimidated by the average businessman walking down the street, asking for the time or directions. But what if we flip this situation around? It makes me wonder what must have been going through the man’s head as he approached. “I don’t want any money.” What expectations must we have for people if he felt the need to clarify that?

The other part of this message – the attached link – was even more interesting in this sense. Picture a busy metro station. In one corner, a violinist busker is playing Bach. That’s where this story starts: a Washington DC metro station with a violinist sat in a corner. The musician stays there for 45 minutes, at peak time while an estimated 1100 people walked past him. A few stopped to throw a penny into his violin case. Not one of them realised that this man was Joshua Bell, one of the most famous and skilled violinists in the world. The man had sold out venues at $100 per seat, and yet in the subway station nobody recognised him – because nobody really looked. The story ends with: “If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?”

So how do we perceive people? Well, the truth is that we don’t, not really. Especially if they’re scruffy, strangers, or busking on the side of the road. That’s a lot of people.

Truthfully, how many people pay attention to busking bands and artists on the street? How many people by comparison will walk past buskers and completely ignore the fact that they might actually be quite good? I found one of my favourite bands because they were busking in the street. My friend’s parents hired the band out for a party because we’d bought a CD from them. Yes, they’re a bit twee, and they dress a bit funny, but they’re talented. And they’re there, week in, week out, only to see hundreds of people blindly walk past them.

It’s almost as if we tune out people on the sides of the road. We all get this very blinkered tunnel vision and, unless we know the person or they look decent, we won’t respond; we might even run away. Does that not seem a bit off to you? Obviously there are exceptions – those people that actually do take time out to talk and listen to people on the street – but generally it doesn’t fill me with fuzzy feelings.

I think this should say something to all of us. It’s pretty clear that we all need to take more time to absorb our surroundings, because – as my own lack of observation has taught me many times – who knows what we’re missing? As my friend said, she’ll never know what that man was going to ask her. That’s one question, one potential opportunity, vanished. I think we can all learn from that. Don’t let yourself lose any opportunities – it couldn’t be much more straight forward. All you have to do is really look.