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Never Talk to Strangers?

As a kid, I was very outgoing. My mom loved to tell stories about me and how I’d disclose personal information to strangers in the grocery store and at the park. Apparently, when I was three years old, my favorite opening line was to announce that she had false teeth but I had real ones.

When she told me, “You should never talk to strangers,” I changed my approach. First, I’d ask people their names. Then I’d introduce them to my mom. When she would remind me not to talk to strangers, I’d respond by saying, “This isn’t a stranger, it’s my friend, ______” (filling in the name I’d just learned).

When we moved into the neighborhood where I spent most of my childhood, I canvassed it to find children to play with. I was five years old then. I went door-to-door, asking at each home, “Do you have any children I can play with?” I soon knew where all the kids could be found, and that information served me well from kindergarten to high school. There was never a dull or lonely moment for me in the Park Hills subdivision of Grandview, Missouri.

My parents, married late in life after careers in the Marine Corps, devised a system that allowed me to roam the neighborhood far and wide. Their system was a direct response to my persistence in meeting new people. I never fully accepted their admonitions not to talk to strangers. So they gave me free range with one condition. I could never get out of hearing range of THE WHISTLE. It was a drill sergeant whistle, loud and shrill. When I heard that, I had 3 minutes to get home or I would be grounded.

THE WHISTLE became a neighborhood event each evening. If I was out of range or choosing to ignore it, other children would hunt me down, breathlessly urging me to hurry-up-because-THE-WHISTLE-is-blowing!!! At the funerals for both my parents, neighborhood acquaintances fondly shared memories of that whistle and of me riding furiously home on my blue bike.

When I missed THE WHISTLE, my mother’s hand wringing would turn to stern scolding shortly after I made it home. The lecture was always the same, focusing on how worried she was that I’d been stolen by a stranger and how I really needed to stop talking to strangers all the time.

By the time I was eight years old, I’d figured out what the allure of talking to strangers was. I asked Mom once, “If I don’t talk to strangers, how am I supposed to make new friends?” I don’t recall what she said, but I do recall her repeating that story over and over again, incredulous that she just couldn’t get through to me about stranger danger.

By the time I hit junior high, I had developed the normal adolescent angst about talking to strangers. Not out of the fear of any physical harm but out of the fear of rejection. By then, talking to strangers meant first appraising them (read: judging them), so that also limited the number of new people I met. I think this carried over into my early adulthood, and it wasn’t until I relocated and began traveling for work that I rediscovered the joys of talking to strangers.

Yes, I’m that annoying person seated next to you on the plane who wants to have a flight-long conversation. I’m the one who strikes up conversations with the hotel desk lobby clerk and the waiter and the people behind me in any line. I am curious and interested about people, where they come from, where they’re going, what makes them tick, and how they view the world. I enjoy meeting strangers.

Because I like asking questions and hearing people’s stories, I generally don’t do a lot of the talking. I like to listen more than I like to talk. As a result, I walk away feeling like I know my new friend very well. Often times, they walk away saying things like, “What did you say your name was?” or, “I feel like I did all the talking!” I take both of those as compliments, because my new friends always say they’ve really enjoyed talking with me. And I’ve enjoyed those conversations, too.

But I’ve been thinking lately… At what point does a stranger become an acquaintance? And at what point does an acquaintance become a friend?

Webster’s offers these definitions:

Stranger: a person with whom one has had no personal acquaintance.

Acquaintance: a person known to one, but not a close friend.

Friend: a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.

These definitions suggest a threshold. For me, feeling attached and having personal regard for someone (not everyone) comes very readily. I enter into conversations and situations looking for people for whom I can develop a regard. I don’t think this suggests a lack of discretion or discernment on my part. Instead, for me, it is simply an openness driven by a desire to connect.

As for stranger danger… I’m very cautious and keep my conversations with my new friends public and safe. Our friendship may never even make it past the baggage claim because of my caution. But even so, I wouldn’t trade those short-term friendships for anything.

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