The Kindness of Strangers

Bruce Schneier argues that the old adage of advice that’s given to children of “don’t talk to strangers” is wrong.   He says the opposite is true:

When I was growing up, children were commonly taught: “don’t talk to strangers.” Strangers might be bad, we were told, so it’s prudent to steer clear of them.

And yet most people are honest, kind, and generous, especially when someone asks them for help. If a small child is in trouble, the smartest thing he can do is find a nice-looking stranger and talk to him.

These two pieces of advice may seem to contradict each other, but they don’t. The difference is that in the second instance, the child is choosing which stranger to talk to. Given that the overwhelming majority of people will help, the child is likely to get help if he chooses a random stranger. But if a stranger comes up to a child and talks to him or her, it’s not a random choice. It’s more likely, although still unlikely, that the stranger is up to no good.

As a species, we tend help each other, and a surprising amount of our security and safety comes from the kindness of strangers. During disasters: floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, bridge collapses. In times of personal tragedy. And even in normal times.

If you’re sitting in a café working on your laptop and need to get up for a minute, ask the person sitting next to you to watch your stuff. He’s very unlikely to steal anything. Or, if you’re nervous about that, ask the three people sitting around you. Those three people don’t know each other, and will not only watch your stuff, but they’ll also watch each other to make sure no one steals anything.

Again, this works because you’re selecting the people. If three people walk up to you in the café and offer to watch your computer while you go to the bathroom, don’t take them up on that offer. Your odds of getting three honest people are much lower.

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