The myth of “stranger danger” (and what to do about it)

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Seems like it should be easy enough to make a new friend in the comfort of our own city or town, right?

Many of us encounter hundreds of people over the course of our day, but how often do we actually say hello and make conversation? If you’re like me, probably not very often. Most people (myself included) can be shy about interacting with strangers, because we fear we might somehow be taken advantage of.

But do we really have reason to be so concerned?

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“Hey, is that tea good?” Why not strike up a conversation with a stranger and see if you can make a new friend?
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

In 2010, at the University of Cologne in Germany, researchers Detlef Fetchenhauer and David Dunning created an economic game that required people to accurately judge the trustworthiness of strangers in order to win. They found that participants considered 52% of strangers trustworthy, even though a whopping 80% of strangers were actually deserving of their trust.

The big takeaway for me here was that the chances of encountering a trustworthy person are much greater than the chances of meeting someone who wishes you harm. If you’re super-cynical or risk-averse, you might say you’d rather practice caution than encounter someone with ill intentions. That’s fine, but if you don’t take the risk, you’ll miss out on meeting the 80% of strangers who are awesome.

If that’s not enough reason to reach out, consider this: the same study also confirmed that the biggest root of our cynicism is a lack of experience with strangers. What does that mean? Well, we established that approximately 80% of people are trustworthy, but if your first few encounters with strangers involved the 20% of untrustworthy individuals, then you’ve probably become skeptical about forging new friendships with mysterious people. On the other hand, if you’ve mostly encountered strangers from the trustworthy 80%, then every stranger is likely to seem more like a potential friend than threat.

Either way, remember that the odds are in your favor. If you’ve had some negative experiences with strangers, try reaching out and increasing your sample size—you’re due for an encounter with someone belonging to that 80%.

Turning strangers into friends is easier done than said. Read that again—it’s not a typo! This is thanks to the handy-dandy method I’ve drafted for creating a more stranger-friendly community wherever you call home. Caution: it sounds a little more like a dance craze than a fail-proof method for making friends, but bear with—it is tested and true.

My prescription for stranger-friendly cities is called the “UP, down, side to side method.” (No worries if you still prefer UP, down, side to side as a dance craze—feel free to bust the moves while walking down the street. No judgment here.) However, it has little to do with shaking-it-up or shimmying-it-down and everything to do with how you interact with your surroundings:

  • Enjoy the ride. Stop thinking about transit strictly in terms of getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Give yourself time to travel through your neighborhood, and as you walk, bike, bus, or drive, take in your surroundings. Look UP, down, and side to side as you journey, and consider how you might add value to your community. Strike up a conversation with the person next to you on the bus, or take note of a new business in the area and plan to stop in.
  • Take a walk. Luminary author Henry David Thoreau said that an early morning walk is like a prayer for the entire day. I ‘Thorealy’ agree!, but I also go a step further and assert that walking has great value at all hours. Walks allow us to look UP, down, and side to side as we commune with our surroundings, and solo sojourns especially provide us with an opportunity to think about our communities and observe the small things that make our neighborhoods special. Try a croissant at the local bakery and leave a tip. Make conversation with your waiter. Find out when the coffee shop has poetry readings and go listen to what some “strangers” in your ‘hood have to say.
  • Commit random acts of generosity. Investing your time and energy in another human being—even a stranger—almost always provides a positive return. When we look UP, down, and side to side, we find little ways to make life nicer for the people around us. Does the woman checking out ahead of you at the grocery store need a dime so she doesn’t have to break a $20? Give her one from your pocket. Does that elderly man look like he could use a little help crossing that icy street? Offer him your arm.
  • Invite someone to dinner. If you’ve ever lived alone, you understand how difficult it can be to cook for just one. Two can even be trying, as many recipes are written for families of four. So instead of dividing a recipe, why not invite the neighbors to dinner? Even (or especially) if you don’t know them well. If nothing else, it will save you the headache of division! And now—I don’t even need to say it, do I?—pause before you start cooking, look UP, down, side to side, and consider who else could be sitting at your table. Then call them. All of them.
  • Say hello without words. A welcome mat is a quick and easy way to welcome visitors and passersby even when you’re not home. If welcome mats could speak, they would say, “Hello friend! Welcome to this house. Please come inside and get cozy.” Even the humble welcome mat is aware of the importance of creating a warm community vibe. Look UP, down, side to side and figure out the best place to put that mat (probably in front of your door, but you do as you like). 
  • Connect with the inspired. The Web makes it easy to contact almost anyone you admire, whether you’ve actually met them or not, so why not send a quick note to someone you think is doing good work? We can go digital with the UP, down, side to side method, too, if we use email to send kind words to deserving people. As an added perk, this kind deed helps you network with the people that inspire you the most.

My final plea comes even more directly from the heart: I ask you to be the type of person that shows others how kind strangers can be. We know that the most despairing communities and hardened individuals need kindness the most. So why not break the cycle and show them some goodness? Go ahead and get started with a little UP, down, and side to side action. It’s great for making friends out of strangers (and can also provide a nice little cardio workout).

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Jennifer Prod is a Minneapolis-based blogger who believes in the power of creativity, positivity, and chocolate chip cookies. She’s written about happiness experiments and proliferating kindness on Idealist, and is always cooking up something on her blog, Apartment Wife.

 

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Comments (2)


  1. Ron writes:
    February 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Thanks Jennifer for the post – nice to “meet” you – now about sharing those chocolate chip cookies with a new friend… : )


  2. Ari Herzog writes:
    February 3, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    And I thought you’d mention mobile applications such as Foursquare, Instagram, or Yelp — which exist solely to turn strangers into friends. How many Instagram users search the database for keyword-tagged photos and click like or add comments? That’s how relationships are formed.


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