Talking to strangers? Some of my finest encounters have resulted from exactly that. Likewise, a few of my most frightening moments.
Let’s start with the positives, shall we?
There was the man who helped me when I was 16 and in Soviet Russia. I was traveling as a student with a small group, and we wandered around through the summer more or less on our own.
I was lost in the Moscow subway system, my Russian was mediocre, and my lousy sense of direction – now the stuff of legend – had me utterly disoriented.
I needed an assist and I imagine distress was written all over my fearful adolescent face!
A stranger with a briefcase asked what was wrong. I managed to explain my dilemma, and when he offered to accompany me from one end of the subterranean system to the other, I was torn.
Who was this guy? KGB? Would I need my Harriet the Spy get-up?
Was he a nut job? Jackovitch the Ripper? Or simply a Muscovite good Samaritan?
Truth is “Stranger” than Fiction
I said yes – with trepidation. He congenially stayed at my side as we transferred lines and rode along, and he delivered me where I needed to go. No doubt he made himself very late to his destination, which I realized even as I thanked him, and he said goodbye.
I still remember that random act of kindness. And I’ve tried to pay it forward as an adult, when I see a stranger in a jam and think I can help.
Oh, there have been other spontaneous scenes with strangers, and I certainly don’t regret them. The breast-fed Boomer Boy? He’s one I’ll never forget!
As for the advice we give to our children – about not talking to strangers?
I think it’s excellent. But as adults we’re constantly making judgment calls. Should we talk to this stranger? Should we avoid that one? How do we discern when a situation calls for reaching out, or pulling back for our own protection?
Aren’t our teachers, our neighbors, our future spouses strangers at first? Don’t we all have glorious tales of random run-ins that lead to remarkable relationships? Aren’t we all strangers – before we get to know each other?
Strange (and Funny) Encounters
A few months back, I found myself with new friends lost in a state park attempting to find a restaurant. And no, we didn’t anticipate an eatery in the forest; we were tooling along a country road, made a few wrong turns, and even the GPS was muddled. We were passing campers and tents, trailers and grills, then circling through towering pines on winding roads.
Eventually we wised up, we backtracked, and we stopped a gentleman who resembled Santa, as he was cruising slowly down the road in a golf cart – no idea why! We engaged him in conversation, explained that we were lost, and the exchange was brief but hilarious.
He thought we were nuts (but harmless); and the feeling was (inoffensively) mutual.
His directions were hopeless and we quickly abandoned them, navigating our way out and even finding the restaurant. The experience – bonding and amusing – was a reminder of how thoroughly enchanting people can be, and how a day can turn on a dime for the better when you dare to talk to a stranger.
Sometimes, our encounters with the unknown are less than entertaining.
In the land of Craig’s List hook-ups and Internet meet-ups we’d be foolish not to take precautions. My own list includes a few basics:
- Meeting in a public place
- No revealing details of where you live
- Not putting out too much personal information
- Checking out the person first – Google, LinkedIn, etc.
So we take our time, we use the Internet to verify their claims, and we ask friends if possible. But this doesn’t necessarily protect us from all risk, or the possibility of a disturbing incident.
One Date + Intimidation + Harassment = Fear and Hiding
Several years ago I went out with a man I met through Match. We’d had a few email exchanges, a pleasant phone call, and because he was known in the community (and I thoroughly checked him out), I made the mistake of allowing him to pick me up in his car, at my house.
Our perfectly polite dinner date turned creepy when I tried to get out of the car and he cornered me. He was big, I’m not, and fighting would have gotten me nowhere. Let’s just say – he wanted more than I was willing to give. His “impeccable reputation” was of little relevance, and I was left to my wits and my words to work my way out of a terrifying situation.
I made it into the house, I locked all the doors, I alarmed the security system. But what followed was even more bizarre and went on for months – intimidating overtures via phone, followed by apologies in emails and messages, along with more insistent requests to date.
I was scared. I was constantly looking over my shoulder. He knew where I lived, and the communications (which I ignored) continued for more than a year.
Friend or Foe?
Needless to say, I stopped dating. I brooded. I hid. I somehow felt to blame though I knew nothing in my behavior should have provoked the incident or its aftermath.
Happily, my security company whom I called immediately stepped in. The owner checked on me regularly, and he had off-duty police patrolling in front of my house throughout those long months.
But what had triggered this seemingly “normal” guy, pillar of the community, to harass me in this manner?
I imagine I’ll never know.
I also imagine you have your own stories when it comes to talking to strangers, and possibly your own guidelines.
Perhaps your stories are funny. Perhaps they’re poignant. In any event you’ve likely developed your own sixth sense when it comes to safety, without resorting to living in isolation.
As to my scary experience, I still find I talk to strangers. Strangers become friends. Strangers become family. But strangers also pose potential risk, and we’re better off paying attention to the basics as we strive to strike a balance between common sense and the pleasure of new connections.