My New Year's Resolution: Talk To Strangers!

Editor: When the message of "don't talk to strangers" was taken to an obsessive and paranoid level during the child abduction hysteria some twenty-five years ago (abductions which were as vanishingly rare then as they are now [no pun intended]) few considered at least one likely outcome of obsessively drumming that message into children's heads: that they would grow up to become adults who DON'T TALK TO STRANGERS. Having now acquired considerable years over which to observe human behavior, it is quite apparent that young adults today are far less friendly and engaging with people they don't know, especially those not in their own age 'demographic', than were young adults when I was one. I also strongly sense a certain self-involvement approaching narcissism amongst today's young adults beyond that of my own generation, itself often (rightly) accused of excessive self indulgence.

We need to recognize that deliberate and fundamental changes in personal behavior and governmental policies necessarily bring with them the certainty of unforeseen consequences. "Not talking to strangers" has had, as was inevitable, a corrosive effect upon society and upon trust which cannot be a good thing.

Bruce Schneier, perhaps the world's foremost computer (and societal) security "guru", wrote a piece for his own website a few years ago which is as true today as it is now. Please read it, below. Thank you, Bruce!

Talking to Strangers

In Beyond Fear I wrote: "Many children are taught never to talk to strangers, an extreme precaution with minimal security benefit."

In talks, I'm even more direct. I think "don't talk to strangers" is just about the worst possible advice you can give a child. Most people are friendly and helpful, and if a child is in distress, asking the help of a stranger is probably the best possible thing he can do.

This advice would have helped Brennan Hawkins, the 11-year-old boy who was lost in the Utah wilderness for four days.

The parents said Brennan had seen people searching for him on horse and ATV, but avoided them because of what he had been taught.

"He stayed on the trail, he avoided strangers," Jody Hawkins said. "His biggest fear, he told me, was that someone would steal him."

They said they hadn't talked to Brennan and his four siblings about what they should do about strangers if they were lost. "This may have come to a faster conclusion had we discussed that," Toby Hawkins said.

In a world where good guys are common and bad guys are rare, assuming a random person is a good guy is a smart security strategy. We need to help children develop their natural intuition about risk, and not give them overbroad rules.

Also in Beyond Fear, I wrote:

As both individuals and a society, we can make choices about our security. We can choose more security or less security. We can choose greater impositions on our lives and freedoms, or fewer impositions. We can choose the types of risks and security solutions we're willing to tolerate and decide that others are unacceptable.

As individuals, we can decide to buy a home alarm system to make ourselves more secure, or we can save the money because we don't consider the added security to be worth it. We can decide not to travel because we fear terrorism, or we can decide to see the world because the world is wonderful. We can fear strangers because they might be attackers, or we can talk to strangers because they might become friends.

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