Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Talking to Strangers

I have a different view on strangers than most people do. I think talking to strangers is awesome. Every person we meet is an opportunity, and you never know how you may benefit.

Of course, not everyone thinks this way. May people speak of "Stranger Danger." Children are taught from a young age never to speak to strangers. But is this the right thing to do? Before I talk about kids and strangers, let me talk about my own experience.

A train very much like the one I rode on. Full of strangers.
Strangers on the Train
I was inspired to write this by my experience on the train last night. I travel to and from New York City one day a week, and I travel by train about three hours each way. I almost never speak to anyone on the train because the people I see on the train don't seem too keen to speak, and I'm usually working on my computer (writing the previous blog post for example).

Last night, however, I ended up chatting with both the gentleman sitting next to me and two young women across the aisle. It started when I noticed he was playing what looked like an interesting game on his phone and I asked him what it was. He obligingly stopped the game and exited to find the name so I could play it. (Air Navy Fighters Lite, is the name, by the way, a fun little fighter jet game.)

The two women, it turns out, were from eastern Connecticut like me, and we chatted about this and that. Turns out they were in New York for a hair convention (they work in cosmetology, which is quite different from cosmology, in spite of the similar spelling).

So, we got off the train in New Haven, and I looked up at the upcoming trains. I had left early so I could get back to New London before they closed the roads. Much to my surprise, the 7:11 train only went to Old Saybrook as did the 8:00 train. The next train that would take me all the way to my car was at 9:00, 2 hours later. Fortunately, these two thoughtful ladies were heading that direction and offered to give me a ride, saving me the experience of a 2 hour layover at the train station.

During the course of the drive to New London, we had a lovely conversation. It turned out that one of them was thinking about moving, so I was able to refer her to a good Realtor, in addition to a few other connections I was able to offer. It was a beneficial connection all the way around.

Strangers in my Life
A highway full of strangers, two of whom once pulled over
late at night to help me when my tire blew out.
It got me thinking about my various interactions with strangers over the years. I once picked up a another stranger stopped top help and loaned me his spare tire.
hitchhiker who ended up becoming a customer at my store. When I had a tire blow out on the highway, a stranger pulled over to help me. When the spare blew out 30 miles later,

In fact, as I think about it more, I realize that, while I have had many people do unpleasant things to me, not one stranger has every really done me harm. Any time I've been ripped off, cheated, manipulated, mistreated, or made to lose something I valued, it was at the hands of someone I knew, not a stranger.

The thing is that most people are just good people. Sure, we hear on the news all kinds of horror stories about serial killers and con men and all the rest, and it certainly does happen out there, but the vast majority of people are just people. They are going about their lives, trying to get by, and generally wishing the best for those around them, and the most strangers you interact with, the more you see that. Unfortunately, the converse is true. The less strangers you interact with, the more likely that your opinion of strangers is based on the media.

It is uncommon to encounter a ruffian who wishes to threaten
you with fisticuffs.
Strangers of Ill Will
Perhaps you wish to stop me right here and tell me that you hardly ever interact with strangers, but the one time you did, something bad happened. Here's the thing. People who mean you harm will find a way to do so. Con men and crooks are well practiced at appearing harmless and kind, thus they will seem more harmless and kinder than the average random person, so if you tend to avoid strangers, then the only stranger who would be able to pierce your veil is the one who is trained and practiced at doing so.

Avoiding strangers doesn't keep you safe. It just prevents you from encountering opportunity and experiencing the joy of feeling that you live in a community of mankind.

Strangers All Around
Most people you know were strangers at some point. Unless you somehow manage to only befriend people who come recommended, many of your friends were once strangers, and, for some reason, you let them in. Imagine if you had avoided that first meeting, what would you have missed out on.

Think of the Children
This is a blog about children, or at least one child, so let's talk about strangers and children. The media has created a perception that there are gangs of pedophiles roaming the streets looking for children to abduct. This is, of course, absurd, yet too many parents act as if this is the case.

First, let's look at the facts. Stranger abductions are astoundingly rare. I'm sure I can find more current data, but this article gets the point across.
Only a tiny minority of kidnapped children are taken by strangers. Between 1990 and 1995 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children handled only 515 stranger abductions, 3.1 percent of its caseload. A 2000 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs reported that more than 3/4 of kidnappings were committed by family members or acquaintances of the child. The study also found that children abducted by strangers were harmed less frequently than those taken by acquaintances.
Why is this important? Because if parents believe that their children are constant danger of abduction they make wrong choices based on wrong information. They don't let their kids walk to the playground down the street or play with their friends in the woods.  They teach them a fear of strangers.

Why is that man wearing a hood? What is he up to?
Oh, nevermind, it's raining and he wants to stay dry.
One might think that a little extra precaution is good, but every precaution comes with a cost. Perhaps the child who cannot go to the park stays home and plays video games instead. Exercise and socialization replaced with solitude and inactivity, and as this very blunt rant from 2004 points out, a child is 17 times more likely to commit suicide than be abducted by a stranger.

But it's worse than that. Unless a child is privileged to be born into a well connected family, every opportunity they encounter will come from an interaction with a stranger, and you can't spend 18 years telling a child to avoid strangers and be afraid and suddenly turn around and expect them to know how to interact with strangers and develop contacts in the world.

We are robbing our children of the chance to develop the skills they will need to thrive in a very tumultuous economy in order to protect them from a "danger" that is less prevalent than dying of the flu.

Every precaution has a cost. The Koalid will be taught to be alert to her surroundings. She will be taught self defense. She will be taught to be skeptical of strangers, but not afraid.

Strangers are just friends that you haven't met yet. That is lesson I live by and that is the lesson I shall pass on.

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