We are constantly bombarded with the idea of stranger danger, looking at our phones for directions instead of asking the people walking past us, overhearing others’ conversations in public but just listening, not joining in through fear of being a weirdo.
But we are social animals, since when did it become so weird to be social?
Instead of being taught to trust ourselves and our own intuition, we are simply taught not to trust other people.
It’s like an objective rule, universally applied to intrinsically unique, subjective situations. This seems somewhat wrong when you try to comprehend it.
A 2022 study published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has said that most people are happy to be spoken to by strangers, but would not feel confident to go and talk to a stranger themselves, through fear of rejection, the other person thinking that they are the weirdo.
The fear of not knowing what to say or how to carry on the conversation appeared higher than the fear of the stranger themselves, so is it that we are scared of ourselves more than other people?
The fact that people are happy to be spoken to, but too scared to initiate conversation implies that we do in fact want to talk to each other, but it’s our own personal stigmas that we need to get over.
Although some people have had horrific experiences with strangers, and those incidents should never go disregarded, the US Department of Justice have reported the vast majority of assault cases that are committed to adults are perpetrated by people that they already knew (73%), and even more so with children (93%).
Although these horrific experiences will undoubtedly induce fear into people, it’s not “strangers” that are the root of the problem.
Joe Keohane, the author of “the power of strangers” has suggested in an article for the BBC, in relation to the evidence from the US Department of Justice, that there is little statistical evidence for the concept of “stranger danger”.
But because “stranger rhymes with danger, the pair became inextricably linked.”
In the book Koehane talks about how strangers, which may seem to be the route to many of our problems are in fact a possible cure to them and “discovers the surprising benefits that come from talking to strangers”
Koehane further makes the point that “For more than 6,000 years, humans have lived in cities – a form of social organisation characterised by a superabundance of strangers”. This “superabundance of strangers” is, bottom line, the very foundation of cities: This is how they are socially constructed.
One of the main reasons so many people feel isolated in cities even though they are full of people, could be because naturally we are meant to interact with each other. But we actively reject the idea of engaging with the “other” – the stranger – and this unconsciously creates a tension within us, a sense of anxiety, even disappointment.
Teaching children that all strangers are dangerous may even cause more harm than good. Even though this “rule” has been put in place to protect children, it is essentially teaching members in society not to trust each other.
With trust being a key component to formulating healthy solid relationships, this can’t be a good thing.
Turning to examples in our adult life: Take dating apps and our increasing reliance on them to find a date or partner. If dating apps didn’t exist, would we be more likely to speak to people in person because we know there aren’t any other options if we want to meet people.
The overuse of meeting people online whether it be dating or just simple social purposes, in fact makes us more antisocial.
Once you have spoken to people on Instagram first, you feel like you already know them, even though you don’t. Thus, a certain barrier has already been broken. But it is only superficial. A first step that in most cases never leads to a second step, much less a third.
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A study by psychologists Gillian Sandstrom, at the University of Sussex in the UK and Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia has in fact suggested that talking and intersecting more with strangers makes us happier, and as a matter of fact smarter.
In 2013, the two psychologists did a social experiment, where they had one group of 30 adults make a concerted effort to interact positively, by smiling and talking to the barista at a coffee shop in Toronto, and another group of 30 make their transaction as fast as possible, not interacting socially or being polite to the barista at the till.
The 30 participants who had made the effort to interact and acknowledge the barista as another fellow human reported feeling a stronger sense of belonging, and improved mood compared to the group who treated the barista like a robot.
Because that is what we’re doing when we don’t engage fully with those we are interacting with, we treat each other like robots. And engaging “fully” means to be aware of the whole context: The person in front of you, where you are, what the two of you are doing (in this case, drinking coffee) and who is around you and can hear you talk (the barista).
The authors concluded, “the next time you need a little pick-me-up, you might consider interacting with the Starbucks barista… thereby mining this readily available source of happiness”.
Behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder at the University of Chicago asked commuters to talk to strangers on public transport and in waiting rooms – situations where striking up conversation is generally frowned upon.
Participants in this experiment were also worried of rejection, fearful that the stranger at the receiving end would indeed think that they were a creep.
However the participants reported that the strangers were surprisingly receptive, pleasant and curious.
Schroeder concluded “humans may be social animals but may not always be social enough for their own well-being”.
In a study published in the Pnas Journal, with the intriguing title “Stimulus Generation as a Mechanism for learning to trust”, researchers found that if a stranger resembles someone we have lost trust in, we are less likely to trust them than someone who might look like a person we already know and get along with.
This may seem obvious, but the discoveries of the study don’t finish there.
29 people took part in a game. They were asked to either keep or invest $10 with one of three men they had never met before, but whose photographs were provided to them. Over the course of 45 games, 15 games for each photo, one person frequently shared his profit, another shared his money 60% of the time, and another very rarely split his earnings.
In the second part of the experiment, the same people were asked to pick a partner for a new game. Either a player whose face they couldn’t see or a player of which they could see a photograph of. Four of the photographs were new faces they had never seen before, and 54 were images that had been edited to resemble the faces of part one of the experiment, with a sense of familiarity but by no means a carbon copy.
The outcome was that the faces that resembled the trustworthy players from the first game, were the more likely participants to be selected for the next task, and 68% of participants tuned down the picture that resembled the untrustworthy character from part one.
The pictures were carefully edited so that the photos were not recognisable, and any form of recognition that was there would only formulate in the subconscious.
This is why we “trust some strangers, and not others.”
Disclosure: Since researching for and writing this article, I would certainly like to make a more concerted effort in my own life to break down social barriers and remove the constraints that society has taught me. The next chance I get, I shall chat up the people I am sitting next to on the tube in London.
As Stolle suggested, you don’t know how many opportunities you are missing out on by simply being scared to interact with the unfamiliar faces around you.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Two people sharing a bench without interacting with each other. Featured Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.