When was the first time you were told “don’t talk to strangers”? I remember being around 4 or 5 when those words were first said to me. When you’re a kid, everyone who isn’t your family, your friend, your teacher, or in your class is technically a stranger. The expectation that parents should want to keep their kids safe from unsavory people, (often lumped into the category “strangers”) is understandable. Kids rely on their caregivers, guardians, and parents for safety and protection. Kids are reliant on those who care for them to both protect them and set the parameters of who they should be wary of.
The problem with the “stranger danger” ideology is that it ignores the fact that according to the CDC, “someone known and trusted by the child or child’s family members, perpetrates 91% of child sexual abuse.” And RAINN reports that 86% of the time women are assaulted by someone they know.
Fast forward to adulthood, where people still use the phrase “don’t talk to strangers” as a de facto safety edict. It’s as if avoiding strangers completely will result in a safer world and the elimination of violence. Sadly that is not the case, and blanket terms like “stranger danger” actually do more harm than good. Why? The term “stranger danger” is a false sense of security that implies that everyone is ok except for strangers. That couldn’t be further from the statistical facts. Instead of actually teaching people how to interact with strangers (and people in general), who most of the time are NOT out to hurt you, we are teaching them to be distrustful of all strangers. Avoiding strangers even when we might need their help, undermines our individual intuitive skills and decision making. And assuming people who are not strangers will always be safe to interact with is just as erroneous.
I talk to strangers
Guess what? I talk to strangers! I talk to strangers all the time, and especially when I travel solo. I bet you do too, when you think about it. What is a stranger? It’s anyone you don’t know well. On an average trip, that covers:
The rideshare driver who takes me to the airport
The flight attendants
The airport staff at the arrival airport
The taxi, shuttle or rideshare driver at my destination
The hotel staff
The people on the tours with me
Locals and people on the streets in the cities, towns, beaches, trails.
People around your hotel, hostel, accommodations, etc.
If I stuck by the blanket advice of “don’t talk to strangers”, I’d have a pretty boring trip, not to mention I probably wouldn’t get the help, instructions, or directions I needed for certain activities.
Doesn’t it make more sense feel empowered to talk to strangers, especially when traveling? Doesn't it make more sense to learn how to trust our own intuition and awareness of each situation we encounter so we can make the best decision for ourselves?
When we interact with others, we learn more about them as well as learning more about ourselves. We learn how to have conversations, we gain new perspectives, and we can get valuable insight about a location. There have been many trips (my latest one to Costa Rica included) where talking to strangers has introduced me to a point of interest that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Locals are great sources of information and advice. And other travelers may have researched different areas than you did. When you share that knowledge it can enrich everyone’s experience and lead to a more fulfilling trip.
I walked with a stranger in Costa Rica
I just spent 10 days in Costa Rica solo traveling around the country. I had an incredible time and I made it a point to practice my Spanish while there. That meant engaging in a lot of conversations with strangers! I had a unique experience at my Monteverde Hotel that really illustrated why being empowered to talk to strangers is a part of living limitlessly.
My hotel had a hiking trail around the property that included placards (in both English and Spanish) of the wildlife found in the cloud forest. When I got to the last placard of a sloth, I mused aloud that I wanted to see one. A man who I presumed worked at the hotel walked up to me from another building and noticed that I was looking at the sloth picture. He said “perezosos” and pointed at the picture. I nodded and then realized that perezoso is “sloth” in Spanish. I explained in Spanish that I wanted to see one and he eagerly shared that he could take me to where I could see one. I had an understandable moment of hesitation.
Here was the scenario that most people are terrified of: a strange man is offering to lead me to an unknown location in a place I’m unfamiliar with, in a language I don’t know well. Sounds like the beginning of a scary movie right? This is the epitome of everything society says not to do, isn’t it? The societal script says “damn your intuition and your own awareness of a situation! The rule is ‘don’t talk to strangers…ever!" How limiting and exhausting right?
I examined my intuition and realized that I wasn’t afraid and I didn’t get any weird vibes from him specifically. I agreed to walk with him and we passed the front desk building. He stopped in to say something to the front desk person, who I had checked in with a couple of hours prior. I craned my neck into the doorway and subtly pointed to the man and asked “Esta bien?” (Is it ok?) It doesn't hurt to double check with someone, and I also wanted the attedndant to know where I was going and who I was with since I was traveling solo. The front desk man nodded and I figured, ok, this seems to check out. There was also a friendly dog following the man who was leading me and I thought, if the dog thinks he’s ok, then he must be as chill as he seems.
My final thought process was reminding myself that even if a worst case scenario unfolded, it’s not my fault, and I am more than capable of physically protecting myself. I would have no problem defending myself if necessary and I felt assured in how many tools and options I have available on my body to do that. That realization set me at ease and walked with more confidence as I followed him down the driveway of my hotel, keeping a good amount of space between us, and he led me across the dirt road to the property next door.
As we walked he was talking to me in Spanish (he didn’t speak any English so I really got to flex my Spanish skills!) about where he’s from and his family. We passed coffee beans being laid out to dry and he was explaining the process. We had walked about 5mins and then he excitedly points up at a large tree and exclaimed “perezoso!” I looked up towards where he was pointing and all I saw was a mass of moss hanging from a large branch towards the top. Then I realized what I was looking at was the sloth! And not just one sloth. This was a sloth mama and her baby!
I pulled out my phone and started snapping photos and videos since this was the first sloth I had seen in Costa Rica. The man showed me to the other side of the tree where I could get another angle of her.
After watching her for a few minutes we started walking back. When sloths are in trees they don’t move much and generally just hang if they’re not actively eating. In fact, they only go to the ground once a week for a bathroom break before they head right back up into the trees. The man told me this as we headed back to the hotel. When we got there I told him how grateful I was that he showed me the sloth and thanked him again. I would never have seen a sloth mama and her baby if I hadn’t talked to a stranger.
Are all strangers kind, good, well meaning souls? Of course not. Are all strangers, mean, predatory, evil creatures? No way!
How to talk to strangers?
The big question is how do you know the difference? I wish there was a single tried and true rule I could share with you that would guarantee your ability to discern well meaning strangers from creeps with bad intentions. The simplest explanation I have is for you to use your intuition and your awareness. Allow your body and your senses to guide your interactions with strangers (and anyone!) to help you decide if you need to end a conversation quickly, or avoid someone altogether.
I’ve had overwhelmingly more experiences where talking to strangers was enriching rather than dangerous. Those times when I sensed that something was off, I set an immediate boundary. That could be as simple as saying “no”, increasing your distance, or walking away. It doesn’t matter if the person feels offended by your quick departure or refusal to engage. Your concern is YOUR safety, not their feelings or how they are going to receive your boundary.
When talking to strangers, you get to decide how much, if any, personal information you want to share. If someone is asking a lot of questions, you're not obligated to answer. My favorite phrase to use is, "Wow you're asking a lot of questions." Then not answer any of them. Or you can say, "I don't feel comfortable sharing that information with you." If a conversation is making you uncomfortable, you can set a boundary to end the interaction and leave if possible.
Let’s re-frame the phrase “don’t talk to strangers” and highlight the intention of the phrase instead. There’s a lot more nuance to it even though it’s uttered as if it’s an iron clad rule. Instead of perpetuating outdated false narratives, we should instead be learning how to deal with strangers, and even the people we know, in an empowered way.
That’s why I teach the range of skills for navigating the wide spectrum of encounters we face daily and when out exploring the world. When we have these skills, we can toss well meaning but outdated (and often incorrect) safety idioms in the trash. Then we can walk out into the world with our head up, shoulders back and engage with people on our own terms.
For kids, re-framing that conversation means teaching them how to safely interact with strangers vs. avoiding them altogether. There are many empowerment based self-defense classes that teach these skills to kids. If your child is lost in a store, you want to make sure they know how to safely enlist the help of a stranger to get reconnected to you. We don’t want them to be fearful of asking for help or accepting help because they were simply told “don’t talk to strangers.”
By changing the conversation to help kids identify how a person makes them feel (intuition) vs just being told to avoid them, then you can help your child to identify danger, even if it’s a person known to them. Perpetrators who are familiar people (friends, family, teachers, babysitters, coaches, etc.) can hide in plain sight if we’re only telling kids to watch out for “strangers”. A familiar person can use that phrase against the child to gain trust (grooming) because if the child thinks they only have to watch out for strangers, then this familiar person making you feel uncomfortable can’t possibly be bad.
For adults, re-framing “don’t talk to strangers” means allowing us to make our own decisions based on the facts and observations from our current situation. Blanket statements like “don’t talk to strangers”, “don’t go outside by yourself at night”, or “don’t walk by yourself”, aren’t effective and instead can serve to restrict our movements and activities. Talk to strangers if it feels ok to do so. And if at any point you get an intuitive spark or you decide you want to end the interaction you have the power to do that. Talking to strangers has the added benefit of helping us gather information to help us identify someone’s intentions. And once you know, you can make an informed decision about your next move.
Talking to strangers, especially while traveling, is a great way to learn more about the world around us. Listening to the experiences and lives of others is enriching. Learning valuable insights about a city, national park, or tourist area is informative. Get recommendations and be open to hearing new information that might help you shape your trip.
I will continue to talk to strangers and open up the world around me!
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