The places where it is socially acceptable to talk to a complete stranger are becoming fewer and fewer, unless it’s via social media that is. Argue with a complete stranger in the comment section of a Youtube video all you want, but God forbid you accidentally make eye contact with a passenger on the bus in fear that they will then have the audacity to strike up a conversation. Outside the realms of those providing public service: our taxi drivers, bus men, shop assistants or waiters I can think of few times during my week when I would speak to someone I don’t know, unless it’s to kindly ask them to get out of my way.
Sunday night I gave a lift to a complete stranger. I had finished work around half 11 and stopped at the garage on the way home to get some petrol. One of the lads who was working there had just finished his shift and as he walked past my card when I was getting back in he asked “Can you give me a lift to the village?” So I did. There was no real thought process going on in my head when I agreed. I’d obviously made a split second judgement based purely on his physical image; he looked nice, normal, kinda reminded me of a friend I used to know. He was young, slightly petit and I guess, in that split second, I concluded that I could probably take him if worse came to worst. He got in the car and we joked nervously about how completely random this was. He shook my hand and introduced himself, then assured me he wasn’t a murderer but I guess I really shouldn’t have taken any solace in that. So I dropped him to the village, with a quick pit stop at his house to let out the dogs, and he told me he was on his way to play a gig, that he sings, plays guitar and also is studying to be a dentist. Jumping out of the car he said he’d add me on Facebook and I drove home laughing, thinking of how after an eight-hour shift of waiting tables it was probably the nicest conversation I had had all day.
When I got to college the next day, however, no one seemed to support my decision. I do understand where they are coming from, the dangers of rapists and murderers etc. etc. but I also know that at one time, it was completely acceptable to take a lift from a stranger; that my mam had hitched home from Galway to Dublin as a teenager and that the term hitch hiking exists in the first place because it is a tried a tested method of getting from A to B. It seemed to me that, regardless of giving him a lift, people found it hard to understand why I would talk to a stranger in the first place. Were they right? Should I still live by the words of my parents growing up “Never talk to strangers” or was I wise enough to shrug those blanket generalisations and embrace the unknown, the stranger, that worker at the petrol station? What could I have gained from taking that step or is there really something to be afraid of?
Robbie Stokes Jr is a global social movement founder and executive director of the global non-profit I Talk To Strangers Foundation. In a guest post on the Your Mark on the World Centre‘s website. Stokes speaks of how we as humans are afraid of what is different; “We group into what is familiar, and what is comfortable. And you defend and protect the group through emotional or physical means” and within these groups, Stokes believes “we are all the same. So we rarely venture out.” After taking a stranger up on an offer to visit with him in his home in 2009, Stokes discovered the world of opportunity which opened up to him once he embraced talking to strangers; “Once I started doing this more consciously and making real friends I knew I could change the world. Because I saw that everyone in the world just needed a good conversation from someone new.” Stokes began to backpack around starting a “social movement and alliance that is banding with like-minded individuals to create some real change in the world. As a not-for-profit, we work with corporations, organizations, and governments to bring this new social norm that the world is not scary and we can learn to talk to each other again.”
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