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is it okay: to talk to strangers?

Hopefully by the age of four everyone has been taught about “stranger danger”. Don’t accept random candy, avoid white vans like the plague, and anyone remotely “shifty” looking or wearing a trench coat is to be avoided at all costs.

But, we grow up, we learn about acceptance, and the deceptiveness of appearance. Fairytales didn’t tell the whole truth about villains; scars, scowls and sneers don’t always hide ugly intentions, and eventually most black and white truths give way to endless shades of grey.

So, at what age does it become ok to strike up a comment with the person sitting next to you on the bus, or who has been standing next to you in the line for the past twenty minutes? When does “stranger danger” stop?

It’s at this point I’d like to clarify that this isn’t going to be a column fraught with paranoia, shouting ‘no one is safe!’ as it retreats into its lonely, friendless corner fending off all advances at conversation. If we ignored all strangers, I’m fairly sure that life would be far less interesting, far less eventful, and far less genetically varied.

I’m more interested in the fine line we learn to navigate – balancing personal safety with the potential for prejudice. It seems that ‘stranger danger’ doesn’t ever really stop, instead it morphs into “some stranger danger”. We make snap decisions about people based on situational circumstance, who surrounds them, appearance and gender.

The best way to see this in action is on public transport. It’s semi busy. There are no double seats free, and all the single person spaces are taken. The bus stops. A solitary figure gets on board. She looks around. There are ten people she can potentially sit next to. One glance to the tense woman sitting in the aisle space with bags piled up next to her and she knows she isn’t welcome. The larger man in the stained shirt, arms crossed staring out the window barely gets a second glance. She casts her eye further. Too many tattoos, music too loud, blue hair. Person after person is dismissed, until it comes down to the businessman fiddling with his phone, and the girl in her late teens listening to music. Flip of the coin, it doesn’t matter. These two are the most ‘safe’ options.

So we are trained to think from a young age at least. Tattoos, piercings, alternative hairstyles all become associated with an image of uncertainty and possibly suspicion. Aftershave, ironed shirts and gadgets are associated with familiarity and as a result, safety. This example is simplifying it a bit, and I’m sure this isn’t the case for everyone. Life would definitely be easier if we could just run with these clear cut assumptions. I guess however, the point I’m trying to make that it’s a strange way to view the world, and doesn’t really reflect reality.

Again, I’m not saying you should immediately head down the nearest dark alleyway and ask whoever’s lurking there round to tea. Furthermore, I’m not comparing that situation to discussing fabrics with a random old lady at Spotlight. Things aren’t clear cut. The businessman could be an online predator, the young girl could be a black belt, and the man with all the tattoos could be on his way to teach kindergarten. It’s confusing.

Should we view some people as safe, based on arbitrary facts about their appearance? Or should we view all people as unsafe until vetted by a mutual friend? No and no.

Is it okay to talk to strangers? It has to be. We do it all the time. However, I think we also need to take a look at the weird, two way shift we have where we are hyper-vigilant and, at the same time, lax about our own safety.

(Image credit: 1.)

One thought on “is it okay: to talk to strangers?

  1. This is so true. We form far too many judgement calls within seconds of perceiving others. It’s at least true for me that I’m likely to sit next to a female rather than a male on the bus, for an added note of security. Funnily enough, I met one of my best friends on a bus. He randomly started talking to me which I perceived as A. Very odd but B. Acceptable because he was handsome. I still kept my taught guard up, but after two hours of conversing non stop and a big bear hug, I think I knew we’d be friends.

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