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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TypeFace: How public art is helping Milwaukee residents find their voice

The value of art reaches beyond traditional museums and formal exhibitions. I have seen the arts galvanize communities, unite diverse groups of people, and provide a starting point for dialogue around difficult and important social issues. Art is a unique and powerful tool we can use to understand our communities.

There are important conversations people living in marginalized neighborhoods of Milwaukee, Wisconsin want to have, and art could be the perfect catalyst, but their voices are absent or muted in art’s more traditional settings. The museum is no longer sufficient.

Enter the TypeFace public art project, which unveiled a couple of weeks ago on some of the city’s vacant and foreclosed spaces.

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Milwaukee’s Sherman/Washington Park neighborhood.

Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation, the project provides a different forum, one that is accessible to everyone—no opening hours, admission fees, or shushing. Public art, after all,  is a community conversation held in the open where you can talk as loud as you want.

But what makes this project different from other public art installations? I admit that even as a borderline-obsessive lover of public art, I am wary of “feel good” mural projects. As an ethnographer, I am wary of those attempting to come from outside a community and play savior.

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Milwaukee’s Lindsay Heights neighborhood.

But TypeFace avoids these pitfalls by making conversation its centerpiece, not an afterthought. Featured artist Reginald Baylor’s installations result directly from the year Milwaukee documentarian Adam Carr spent with residents of four of Milwaukee’s roughest neighborhoods, talking with them about their lives and communities.

These are neighborhoods with high rates of crime, poverty, and unemployment; areas where people live but others rarely visit.

“People will come to areas for art, food, and entertainment,” explains Jeremy Fojut, ART Milwaukee president and my TypeFace tour guide when I visited. Giving people a reason to come into these areas is one of TypeFace’s goals.

 

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Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood.

Each installation is covered with words and phrases from Adam’s interviews in each community that evoke a variety of emotions: good, bad, angry, brash, hopeful, reflective, realistic.

Quotations range from the serious—“How can I turn the fight into something positive?”and “Challenge them to act” at the Puzzled and Amazed site in the neighborhood of Harambee—to the silly and abstract: “They had my name carved in an ice cream cone” at the Panel Discussion installation in Sherman/Washington Park.

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Milwaukee’s Burnham Park neighborhood.

A perfect example of how public art can engage a community, TypeFace is more than inspirational. For cities with dead spaces, these conversation-centric installations can motivate residents to use public art as a way to talk with their own communities. TypeFace does not suffer from “savior syndrome,” but is a creation of the communities it’s in, made with residents very literally writing the script.

The year of conversations, workshops, and meetings is apparent in looking at the installations, and it’s exhilarating. By acknowledging the struggles and frustrations as well as the hopes and aspirations of the neighborhoods, TypeFace encourages us to begin knowing these communities and to continue the conversation.

To learn more about TypeFace and how you might bring something similar to your community, contact info@typefacemke.com.

Linkedin #1-1Jordan Kifer is the co-founder of the “Art Is” project and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan where she completed her thesis “Como Ser Afro-Latino/a? Examining Afro- and Latino/a Identities in the United States.” Jordan is a regular contributor to INSIGHT Magazine and works as a development assistant for Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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