“Stranger-Danger” is a Terrible Lesson

Even the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children says don't teach "stranger-danger" to kids.

When life hands you hardship, especially loneliness, there’s an action you can take. It’s hard, but obvious:

Reach out. Even — maybe especially — to a stranger.

In a classic Wall Street Journal article, reporter Elizabeth Bernstein wrote that she was feeling so scared on her flight’s bumpy descent that she asked the lady next to her — a lady she’d barely spoken to the whole time — to please talk to her to distract her. Then she asked the stranger to hold her hand.

The stranger not only complied, they exchanged upbeat emails a week or so later. And frankly, I did the same thing (minus the hand-holding) with a guy who sat next to me on the subway a while back. I talk to lots of strangers but this one was special.

Excuse me, can you lift my soul?

Feeling very glum about some family stuff, I struck up a conversation about his tattoo: a giant cobra (which you’d think might actually inhibit a conversation, but no). Pretty soon we were talking about Life with a capital L. My whole day turned around, as did my outlook on the family issues.

So kudos to Bernstein for promoting one of life’s greatest pleasures — and biggest fears: Talking to strangers, a practice so taboo that many adults still teach kids never to do it. Ironically, the organization that did the most to spread the idea that all strangers are potential predators, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, ended up doing a 180, asking people NOT to teach it to kids. After all, most people are good. And if a kid ever IS in danger, they should feel confident asking a stranger for help.

What is it about connecting with strangers that makes it not only not wrong but great? Bernstein dug up research, mostly by Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex in  England, that shows “people are happier on days when they have more interactions with acquaintances they don’t know well.”

Even strangers like talking to strangers

Furthermore:

[P]eople underestimate how much another person will like them when they talk for the first time. And in a study in which [Sandstrom] asked participants to talk to at least one stranger a day for five days, 99% said they found at least one of the conversations pleasantly surprising, 82% said they learned something from one of the strangers, 43% exchanged contact information, and 40% had communicated with one of the strangers again, an indication they might be making friends.”

Like me and cobra man!

How to strike up a chat with a stranger

How can you start talking to strangers more? Here are some of Bernstein’s tips:

Be brave. Research shows that we underestimate how much people like us when we talk to them the first time. We’re not as boring as we think.

Chat up someone you see regularly, perhaps at the coffee shop, gym or elevator at work. Research shows that people are happier on days when they interact more with acquaintances….

Ask about the other person. Everyone loves to talk about themselves.

Bond during a challenging experience, such as when you’re stuck in a long line or on a bad flight….

Ask for help. This will make you feel less alone. And the other person will get a mood boost that comes from doing a good deed.

Focus on what you have in common. (There’s always the weather.) Then take baby steps to move away from small talk, which is not conducive to a real connection…

I’d add that when your kids see you talking to strangers they see that the world is intriguing and inviting. Of course, if they’re like my kids, they also may roll their eyes: “Mom’s talking to  a stranger again.”

If so, consider this reply: “That’s why you’re alive today.”