Don’t talk to strangers.
That advice is widely given, especially to children.
Don’t talk to strangers because they pose a threat to your safety. Don’t make eye contact. March forward. Avoid the homeless people on the street corner. Don’t exchange glances with politicians looking for votes or with folks ringing bells next to kettles.
No commitment. Don’t talk to strangers.
It may be time to take a chance and start talking to strangers, even for young children.
When we don’t talk to strangers, we continue to connect with people just like us. People who live in the same neighborhood, vote the same way, attend the same school and church, work in the same type of jobs, cheer for the same teams and drink at the same bars.
That’s safe and comforting but it’s not working.
As 2018 comes to an end, ask yourself what have you done to make your community better?
Social scientists like to talk about social capital – the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively. Talking to strangers is one way to improve social capital.
Over and over we hear about tribes and partisanship. Voters told candidates they wanted to elect officials who could work together, to compromise to come up with solutions instead of bickering. Too many candidates, especially at the national levy, focused on fear and anger.
Following the death of President George H.W. Bush, we read about how Bush, a Republican, worked with a Democratic Congress to pass spending and tax legislation, improve the environment and protect people with disabilities from discrimination. Globally, Bush talked to strangers to build a coalition of nations to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.
Closer to home, there are more examples of people talking to strangers. In the Sartell-St. Stephen school district, citizens are working on how to move forward after voters rejected an operating levy. The school leaders scheduled a series of listening sessions to find out, in the words of Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert, “what we did wrong, what we did right and what to do next.”
At the first meeting last week, there was plenty of talking to strangers. Those who supported the measure spoke up, but so did opponents who explained “what we did wrong” with respect and engaged with others to offer solutions. Nobody assigned blame or turned to anger. The meeting included parents with children in schools as well as people with no kids, teachers, coaches and retirees.
Most of the two-dozen people in attendance offered opinions but they also asked for facts to shape the road ahead.
In the year ahead, it’s time to show our children how to safely talk to strangers and build social capital.
Instead of a New Year’s resolution to lose weight or to eat more vegetables, resolve to talk to strangers. There are some big challenges out there. What are we going to do about climate change, health care, income inequality, education funding and crumbling roads and bridges?
Solutions come from talking to strangers, not talking about fear and anger.