Talking to Strangers

Awhile back I made a comment on someone’s Facebook post to the effect that I wished people at the gym and on the street wouldn’t wear earbuds because it makes it hard to have casual conversation with them.

I don’t recall the subject of the post, but my comment was related.

Someone else — a person I don’t know — castigated me for this opinion, saying that they should not be required to “placate” me in my desire for conversation.

This comment pissed me off, but I did not respond because

  1.  the person asserted they were neurodivergent in some way and, assuming that to be true — they were clearly not a garden-variety troll — I did not want to cause them any harm by replying rudely;
  2.  I really didn’t want to end up in nasty back and forth on social media — one advantage of not having a huge following on any platform is that I don’t end up in flame wars with people I don’t even know and I want to keep it that way; and
  3.  I have learned that one doesn’t always have to respond to people, even rude and offensive people, though I will confess that I am better at that online than I am in person.

But it bugged me enough that I haven’t been able to forget it. I find the very idea that engaging in the practice of engaging with other members of a social species is asking them to “placate” me offensive

Besides, there is a great deal of scientific evidence that suggests that the casual conversations we have with people we don’t know is very good for our mental health.

I recently came across a book entitled The Power of Strangers, by Joe Keohane. Keohane is a reporter and, because of his job, prided himself on his ability to talk to strangers. But he reached a point where he didn’t think he was doing it as well as he should, so he set out to write a book on the subject.

I have been reading the book, or rather skimming it. There is a lot of good material in it, but it is unfortunately written in a style and tone that I find annoying, one that is most often associated with self-help books. However, he’s a good reporter and has collected a lot of things we all should know.

His core point that humans should talk to strangers and that such communication is part of how we became the species we are is good and valid, so I’m skimming to get the gist of what he has to say. (Also, his style may not annoy other people the way it does me — it’s a very common form of nonfiction writing, so common that I suspect a lot of editors push it on people who come to them with an idea.)

Connecting with other people is important and speaking with people who are not just strangers, but very unlike you, opens a lot of mind doors.

Now I know that many women are going to jump in and tell me about all their experiences with catcalls and other rude interchanges with men. I’ve never known any woman who didn’t have a stack of unpleasant stories about those experiences — I’ve got plenty of my own. And, in fact, one of the weaknesses of this book is that it doesn’t deal with that very real problem, just mentions it.

Many women have told me they use earbuds to ward off those conversations. While I sympathize with that, as a self defense teacher I don’t particularly like it, because I think it’s better to hear what people are saying and to pay attention to them so that you can determine whether they are a real threat or just an asshole.

I’m not big on cutting out a source of information. But that doesn’t mean such behavior should be tolerated.

Still, there’s something else here that’s important, something that does get addressed in the book, and that’s the fact that strangers are rarely a major source of danger to us.

It’s people we know — intimate partners, family, and a key category that often gets overlooked, acquaintances — that are the biggest threat. According to Keohane, citing data from the CDC, 85 percent of murders in the United States are committed by someone known to the victim.

6.8 percent of women who are murdered are killed by strangers. 19.1 percent of sexual assaults against women are committed by strangers – and 18.6 percent of such assaults against men are by strangers.

Stranger danger is an overblown fear rooted in racism and often used by abusive people in powerful positions to deflect from their bad behavior. We are at more risk from people we know.

The truth is, strangers are rarely the problem.

Lately in the Bay Area we’ve seen a lot of screaming about crime, even though crime is way down here. As someone who remembers the 80s and 90s, when murder rates were high in many big cities, I find the crime claims today laughable.

It’s 9 pm as I’m writing and I’m about to go take a walk around the block in Oakland, California — a place where apparently the management of Kaiser healthcare has been warning people not to go outside to eat lunch in the daytime because of “crime.”

I think they actually mean homeless people living in the parks and under the freeways. Very few of those people are criminals, though they are likely preyed on by such people.

I am not afraid to take a night walk around the block in my very urban neighborhood. I’m occasionally afraid to cross a street, because the drivers take stop signs and speed limits as a suggestion and race through residential neighborhoods.

(And as an old person, I’d blame that on “kids today,” except that an awful lot of the people I see doing it are grownups in fancy cars.)

When I take a walk around the block, I like to meet the neighborhood dogs who are out with their people. I like to say hi to folks. I like to have a pleasant exchange of words when we both notice something like a nice yard or birdsong or even bad drivers.

But a lot of people have earbuds in. And I wish they didn’t, because those short friendly exchanges with strangers often make my day.

And I suspect the strangers like it, too.

3 thoughts on “Talking to Strangers

  1. When I was part of a similar conversation on earbuds, my thought was that we lack a social convention for knowing that there are earbuds. If there was some kind of indication that this person can be spoken to and that can’t, it would be easier. Kind of like reading paper books on public transport – I have used them so many times to indicate that talking is not an option. It mostly works, too. But I’ve not got any way of even seeing the well-hidden earbuds, much less knowing what the person thinks about “The weather is nice” or “The bus is late.”

    1. Also, I have found that some people who have earbuds in don’t mind being interrupted, though given that my purpose is casual conversation that interval when they have to remove them complicated things. Generally, I can tell when someone is intent on something like a book or even a screen, but a lot of people just always want background noise and don’t mind interruptions. It is complicated for sure.

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