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. Continue reading “Talking to Strangers”

Strangers Aren’t the Danger

Back in the Sixties, there was a quote going around that always resonated with me:

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.

I just came up with a corollary to that theory:

If they can make you afraid of the wrong things, they don’t have to do anything about the real dangers.

That could apply to many things, but for today I’m going to focus on the fear-mongering directed at women.

There’s a bit going around Facebook these days that lists all the things women should do to protect themselves. This one reads:

it’s about to get dark earlier.. make sure you fill up your gas tank prior to nightfall.. keep an extra charger with you at all times.. sign up for AAA….. Check your tires and oil… No ATM runs in the evening. Park in well lit areas. Only unlock your doors if you are immediately getting out. Pay attention to your surroundings.. HEADS UP PHONES DOWN… Stay safe Queens.

This one is focused on people who drive, but something similar goes around social media regularly listing all the things women need to do to keep themselves safe when they’re out in public.

Those lists are always followed by multiple comments about how awful men are and how unfair it is that women have to do these things to stay safe when instead men should change.

I’ve got three problems with this list.

First, this is once again advice on how women should limit their lives to stay safe. As the commenters observe, we’re all getting really tired of this.

Secondly, that advice is really about protecting yourself from robbers and carjackers, so the useful parts (such as keep your car in good running condition) apply to everyone, not just women. In fact, men are more often the victims of this kind of street crime than women, perhaps because some men assume being male means you don’t have to pay attention.

But most importantly, when women are told how to keep themselves safe, the implication is that they need protection from sexual assault, rape, and murder. And that brings me to my most important objection: this advice, though often well-meaning, makes women think the real danger they face is from strangers.

And it’s not.  Continue reading “Strangers Aren’t the Danger”