The impression that Vancouver leaves on visitors is a blunt disparity to its reputation with the locals. Many tourists leave the rainy city with an image of a West Coast haven made entirely of glass condos and Expo 86 relics, with an attitude and energy not too foreign from any other city its size. But many who call the city home have half-jokingly dubbed Vancouver a “polite but unfriendly city.” The idea of a “Vancouver freeze” has been around for years with bloggers spending the past half-decade discussing whether or not Vancouver truly is a city full of introverts, completely apathetic to your attempts of starting a conversation on the Skytrain. The Vancouver Sun even ran a (rather good) five-part series on the premise.
Colin Easton, 51, however, feels his city’s image is just that. “All I ever hear about is that it has a reputation” says Easton. “I don’t often hear people say that it actually is an unfriendly city, unless it’s in the context of talking about the reputation itself. I don’t think an entire city can be populated with completely unfriendly people, I think some are just guarded.”
Since New Year’s Day, Easton has been working on what he calls The Stranger Project. The premise is pretty simple: Easton ventures out every day to meet a stranger. He asks them some questions: where are you from? What brought you to Vancouver? What do you do for work? What do you do for fun? He builds a quasi-life-story out of it, usually 300 to 500 words, takes a picture of them, and puts them both online.
Easton’s original plan was to publish the strangers-no-longer on his own Facebook wall. He had done a “photo a day” challenge several years ago, and saw The Stranger Project as a parallel endeavour—though this time he was stretching a social muscle rather than a creative one. Ten days into the project, one of his friends sent him a message encouraging him to make his endeavours public. So Easton set up a page for his pet project, only to receive a message, from a different friend this time, asking him to consider those without a Facebook page. So he set up a Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram to go along with it as well. As of March 1, barely two months old, The Stranger Project 2014 has 2,770 followers on Facebook alone. Easton’s methods in the project have grown as well—though his worst days all involved six refusals, he says that on average he only has to ask two people before one will talk to him. He says that when he first started, he tried talking to people at bus stops, under the impression that since they couldn’t leave, they might be more open to talking to him. He explains that this is why his first few posts were so short. “The bus would eventually come,” he laughs.
“There’s a number of different approaches. It really depends on my read of the person,” says Easton. “If I’m approaching an older person, for example, I try to be more gentle, more polite, have them understand that I’m not here to ask for money. I’ve learned not to give anyone the time to say no before I get out most of my spiel. Sometimes I don’t have to ask many questions—they just give me the information. Other times, I have to dig pretty deep with my questions.”
Easton has seen himself change along with the project. He catches himself judging people less often, and, almost involuntarily, he tries to present himself as friendlier, as the kind of guy who spends his day looking for strangers to meet.
“I’m smiling whether or not they smile back—I don’t really care anymore,” says Easton. “I find that when I lived in Victoria, more people would say hello or wave as you pass them on the street, but not so much in Vancouver. When you catch someone’s eye on the street here, and they see that you’re smiling but have no intention of stopping, nine times out of ten they’ll smile back.”
As The Stranger Project continues to grow, Easton has been able to find new meaning in it. While he continues to refer to the project as a personal one, he admits to hoping that others will be able to take what he’s doing to heart. As a matter of fact, some already have.
“People have sent me messages, telling me that they’re usually pretty shy but have been reading my posts and striking up conversations with people sitting next to them on the bus and actually having a great time,” says Easton. “People tell me that they’ve been inspired to do things for people—smile at their neighbours, say hello. I think it’s definitely having an effect. This morning I got a message from a woman in Ontario saying that every morning she gets up, pours herself a cup of coffee, reads the post, and considers that she’s met that person. That’s a really cool feeling, that I can convey this story of that stranger into her feeling, several thousand miles away, that she’s met this person.”
I ask Easton if he has ever thought of what his own life would look like condensed into a couple paragraphs, and what he would think if somebody approached him with the same set of questions.
“Would I stop and talk to me?” ponders Easton. “Yeah, I think I would. It’s an interesting notion. I’ve never thought of it before. I very specifically don’t give much information about myself in any of the media interviews I’ve done because I don’t want people to focus on my story and get the wrong impression—that I’m only doing this because of my background or whatever. I want people to be able to read the story and feel like they’re the person who could be having that conversation.”
Colin was born in the interior of British Columbia, but has been living in Vancouver since he was two. He’s an avid photographer and takes around 100 photos a week, though he swears it’s just a hobby. He’s also a self-proclaimed social media buff and has been watching Coronation Street for 40 years. Colin started The Stranger Project on January 1, 2014, and plans on continuing until December 31.
For more information on The Stranger Project, visit facebook.com/TheStrangerProject2014.