“Don’t talk to strangers.”
There’s one universal piece of advice that I think we all remember getting from Mom and Dad at an early age. It’s right up there with:
- “Don’t do drugs.”
- “Don’t talk back.” and
- “Don’t set Grandma’s hair on fire.”
This is the kind of instruction you get at a very young age and it doesn’t usually come with much explanation. It’s just one of those universal truths that we seem to accept as law for all human beings.
“Don’t talk to strangers, it’s dangerous.” That’s about as far as we get.
It’s not really bad advice for a 4-year-old. He doesn’t have the ability yet to know the difference between someone offering him candy to get in their van and someone offering to tie his shoe or teach him a history lesson.
But it’s terrible advice for adults.
Talking to strangers is one of the most important things we can do.
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Strangers hold the keys to all kinds of knowledge that we want. They help us understand more about people and how we relate to each other. They unlock cultural misunderstandings and bring freedom to the oppressed.
Strangers have so much to offer us, and I think we should go out of our way to talk to more of them. I try to talk to a stranger at least once every day.
Unfortunately, unlearning this universal “truth” that strangers are dangerous is harder than it sounds.
Even though the childhood dangers of talking to unfamiliar adults are long gone, I still get a little nervous when I meet someone new at a party, chat with the lady in line at the grocery store, or ask a fellow traveler about the transit schedule at a bus stop.
No one’s going to kidnap me for asking how their day is going, but there’s another danger that grown-ups are afraid of.
Talking to a stranger is inviting someone to challenge our belief systems.
We don’t know what they think or how they’ll respond to us and that makes us uncomfortable. They might force us to look at a situation differently than we’re used to. They could say something that reveals just how wrong we are about a truth we hold dear.
If you’re reading this, I probably don’t have to tell you how important this kind of interaction is to becoming a better person, but I also don’t have to tell you how uncomfortable it can be.
Our beliefs and ideals are the most important things we possess. By only allowing people we know to interact with us, we can protect those beliefs because we know exactly how they’re going to react to us and our ideas.
Learning averted, phew.
There’s a homeless man that lives on my street. He walks up and down for miles every day, cursing loudly at no one in particular. Once in awhile, he’ll stop at a payphone to kick the phone book for a minute. We call him Mr. Grumpy and he obviously has severe mental health problems.
I was out for a run last week and when I got back, Mr. Grumpy was up on my yard, peeing behind a bush. My immediate instinct was to get angry and defensive about having a stranger on my property and chase him off.
Luckily, instead, I was able to collect myself enough to wait for him to finish and talk to him for a second. It wasn’t an easy conversation to have; his speech was hardly intelligible and it was obvious that he was ashamed he’d been caught.
But in just a few moments of conversation, I learned something about Mr. Grumpy. I learned that there were no public toilets out here where he lived. I learned that there weren’t any shelters that he could visit here either. I also learned that my house was the last place on the block that he hadn’t been chased off of yet.
Most of all, I learned that he’s a human being just like me. He has the same bodily functions that don’t necessarily wait for the most opportune moment to appear.
It would have been easy to yell and chase him off. It would have been even easier to ignore it and remain scared and uncomfortable every time I saw him. Taking a second to talk to someone that made me uncomfortable helped me to understand his perspective and see the human characteristics that we shared.
And that’s the biggest lesson of all.
When we avoid and ignore those that aren’t like us, it becomes easier and easier to strip away the human traits that ultimately bond them to us. And that is far more dangerous than any discomfort that comes from starting a conversation.
It’s what allows the rich to oppress the poor. It’s what makes genocide possible.
On the flip side, it’s what enables the most unusual partnerships and brings peace to war torn nations.
So please, for the sake of you and everyone you know, forget the advice your parents gave you as a child and talk to strangers. Talk to as many of them as you can.
Do it at the bus stop. Do it at the grocery store. Do it at the post office, at the park, in the elevator. Go to faraway places and talk with your hands if you have to.
Remember, you’re only a stranger once. The more you talk to, the fewer there are.