The Art of Talking to Strangers

Meredith and Tricia saying good-bye to new friends, Meredith’s students from an English class she taught in February.

MOM:

When my girls were little, we had a singsong rhyme I taught them to remember their address and phone number in the event they ever got lost, or some dire emergency happened. To this day they can recite it. Fortunately, when they were very young we never really had to utilize it for the purpose intended. The only time they ever got lost was at the Peachtree City parade. They were found by our youth pastor.

Looking back, I took safety very seriously, maybe, too seriously, if you ask my girls.

Meredith hearing about where to find a particular restaurant from a stranger as we walked towards the city center in the Alahambra district of Granada.

Meredith hearing about where to find a particular restaurant from a stranger as we walked towards the city center in the Alahambra district of Granada.

In my defense, with over 100,000 cases a year of Internet predators stalking young adults and similar cases of kidnappings of young children, I practiced safety for valid reasons. Crime and bad people are out there, no question.

Upon moving to Fayette County in 1995, I embraced the suburban bubble and took a deep breath, but didn’t stop harping on ways to be safe. The balance of being cautious, yet raising citizens who care and befriend all is not easy. Let’s face it: motherhood is not easy.

How to protect my girls and not project the full extent of my own fears did not have a chapter in the childrearing books. My greatest fear was something happening to one of my girls. I leaned on my own lessons, current observations of culture, and frankly, just did the best I could.

We went from rhymes for remembering your phone number to code words for danger. My kids were taught to never go near a car that stops at the bus stop to ask for directions. No one went to the stores at night, and the curfew was before midnight because my parents taught me that nothing good happens after midnight.

Once my girl’s started driving, I would remind them to have their keys ready when they leave a busy place, to lock their car door once they were inside. I requested a phone call when they arrived at their destination. I often got eye rolls, and I am aware that whether intended or not, I instilled fear in my daughters. Right or wrong, we women have innate fears.

Every human has natural fears, boys and girls alike as we mature and learn to navigate our worlds. Some of our fears continue whether we’re on the playground, in the conference room, or on the city streets.

However, I ponder on whether or not we teach women about fear and the different types of fear differently. I question if we really teach our female children how to fight our enemies and fears directly. I wonder what we fear in talking about the different types of fear. I heard that a woman’s biggest fear is personal safety. In contrast, a man’s biggest fear is ridicule.

Hmmm. No wonder I fear for the safety of my hen house. How we, as females, deal with safety fear, perceived fear, habitual and inherited fear may be each of our toughest walls to climb.

Perhaps we do not talk about fear out of sheer reality. An ordinary woman has to be more careful than a man when she walks alone in a city. Fears make you weak, and to be weak in the world of survival can be dangerous.

My children are now as old I was when I was a young mother. Now I have the pleasure of hanging out with them as adult children. My oldest and I were traveling together, and I observed her share humor and life with complete strangers as we navigated foreign trains, buses, and grocery stores. She navigated relying on instincts and interactions with strangers all while speaking a foreign language.

“Who are you? How did you get so savvy with strangers?”

“ I learned it from you, mom.”

And I was blown away. How? When I instilled fear of going to a store after 8 p.m.?

One of my biggest parenting paradoxes was how to raise kids that were kind to anyone and everyone while the foundation stood on rules based on fear. Protecting our children is instinctual. And I am a momma bear, and a big loud one if needed.

And there I was—a tired momma bear bursting with pride for my lovely adult daughter who despite my fear and rules, also absorbed my demeanor, my hope, and learned how to balance prudent safety and kindness to strangers.

I don’t think we want a world in which no one speaks to strangers. We would lose too much if we personally and collectively maintain a silent population afraid to interact with each other. Yet, we may be close. I witness more and more folks zoning into their earphones or phones when in line, on a bus, or a plane. I don’t think we necessarily have to seek new best friends with every errand, but being part of the human race might nice once in a while.

Some of my most important and meaningful conversations were with strangers. I have learned how to make a salad dressing from a male chef riding the subway, what true love meant to a woman who immigrated here from northern Italy, and how to talk to your children about the birds and the bees from a woman who sat next to me for two hours at the DMV.

While we sat on those cold plastic chairs, waiting for our turn, we shared the general opinions about the weather, and then exchanged some tidbits about our kids. Somehow I presented my parenting dilemma du jour, and I remember her patting my arm and saying, “Remember. When raising kids, it just like when you are unloading the groceries from the car. You don’t hand the heaviest bags to your children.You hand them the bags that they can carry in the house without smashing or breaking. As they grow up, you can start adding the heavier grocery bags.”

It has been a long time since I thought of that stranger, that fellow mother, and our time together at the DMV.

I followed my daughter, weaving through the crowd of a busy cobblestone street, and she confidently carried the heaviest of our grocery bags chatting with a stranger, who was walking towards the town square.

I caught a glimpse of eye contact with a stranger, passing by, and I smiled.

 

DAUGHTER:

Growing up, my mother was hyper-vigilant about our safety. She knew things that we didn’t – things about predators, and ill-willed strangers. Subsequently, Mom instilled a robust sense of awareness in us girls. (Okay, fine, it was full-blown fear.)

The covert message was: people, particularly men, are probably out to get you – especially between the hours of 10 p.m. and anytime after midnight. What started when we were kids as a firm “don’t talk to strangers, don’t get in the car with strangers, and only trust policemen and mommy and daddy’s friends” transitioned into “always assume the worst, wear your RBF*, STAY ALERT, and don’t run errands at night.”

As I say, robust awareness.

Maybe I received an extra dose of the safety injection because I’m the oldest, or perhaps I came out wired with a proclivity for fear. Regardless, hyper-vigilance has been a constant companion of mine. My younger sister, Mallory? Fearless. I, however, am not.

Until a few years ago, I avoided running errands after dark because of who might come after me in the parking lot. Because, you know, all of the scary strangers were waiting on me to arrive at Target at 8:07 p.m. to come and get me.

So, how did a girl who grew up with this EXTREME sense of vigilance and a driving concern for her safety come to travel to a foreign country by herself, learn how to talk to strangers in a way that completely shocked her Mother?

Tricia Stearns and Meredith Mayo

Tricia Stearns and Meredith Mayo

I don’t know, either. But it happened.

For one, necessity, i.e., getting around a foreign country. I had to set aside some those learned notions about strangers. Suddenly, the man at the crosswalk that I would have otherwise never approached becomes the man I ask for directions to Plaza España. As it turns out, he is kind, and not a serial killer (as far as I could tell).

This drastic shift all happened with the help of strangers. My mom saw this transformation in me right before her eyes in the middle of a hallway of a shared Airbnb in Granada, Spain. She couldn’t believe her daughter was so fearlessly talking to a stranger –  and even offering him tea!

Part of it is just getting older. Part of it is the mysticism of doing the next right thing and seeing that as you go along, you’re miraculously okay, and that by and large people are people.

At one point, my hyper vigilance served me. I’m still aware of my surroundings, to be clear, but I’m also making room in my brain to set aside extreme fear and to welcome the friendly conversation with a complete stranger.

Ironically, my mom taught me how to talk to strangers. She’s been a charmer since I’ve known her and never has – not once – been afraid to pick up conversations with people wherever we go. Perhaps she went through her own period of hyper vigilance and now, observing as Anne Lamont says, “we are all just human beings walking each other home” and  “she is free to be the fullness of her”: an energetic, chatty, dynamic woman who has taught her girls to be the same.

Life is a process. But no matter what, we somehow always turn into our Mothers.

In my case, I’m not complaining one bit.

 

Written by Tricia Stearns and her daughter Meredith Mayo

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