Most of us use this as a somewhat affectionate greeting. It’s a convenient and condensed way to say ‘Hey, I’m so pleased to see you! Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in so long and I’ve missed you.’ Or some variation thereof.
Odd, isn’t it, that a word so socially laced with warning and danger can be used to express the exact opposite. You could say… strange (okay, that was the first and last pun there, and a whole other context of the word for another time). But let’s take a minute to look at the actual definitions of the word stranger.
Oxford Language dictionaries offer us this:
1. A person whom one does not know or with whom one is not familiar
2. A person who does not know, or is not known in, a particular place or community.
3. A person entirely unaccustomed to (a feeling, experience, or situation)
Miriam Webster also has this to add:
1. One who does not belong to or is kept from the activities of a group.
Perhaps in the choosing of this word, we are also hinting at definitions 2 and 3, that maybe this person and you don’t know as much about each other right now, and you’ve become unaccustomed to being in each other’s presence… a subconscious warning or reminder that things may have changed. Or maybe it’s just vernacular.
Most of us can identify a stranger. And the rules around how to behave with them. The interesting thing the definitions give us is what makes up “a stranger”.
The first definition – sure… ‘I don’t know you, therefore you’re a stranger’.
When we move onto the second definition is makes us remember that our identity is bigger than one person. We are, often, a group, a community, a town, or something that is tightknit enough that everyone knows everyone knows everything about everyone. Maybe we’re a school, a church group, or a summer vacation spot with regular visitors. In definition 2, the outsider coming into the community can be a stranger, not only because we don’t know them, but because they do not know us – and this may in fact be the more important factor.
The connotations of that are a little creepy. From within a group, most would feel more comfortable with a random stranger knowing as little about us as we did about them. The idea that someone moves into a community with an unexplained in depth knowledge of it’s individuals is very unsettling.
It is in interesting notion though. If you take the newness out of the concept, and consider the number of relationships we build in our day to day which end up with a very unbalanced over-sharing of personal information, it seems we have a lot of “strangers” around us. The barista, the hairdresser, the receptionist. They are known to us, but they know us on a very different level. But we’re not entirely Unaccustomed to them, so that makes sense of Definition 3.
This doesn’t inherently make them a danger to us. In fact, a stranger with a deep insight into our lives is sometimes a necessity. Take a therapist for example. A therapist being someone that we don’t know doesn’t make them unsafe… in fact, the complete opposite. It makes them a safe outlet, and a completely unattached third party which can offer a safe and uncompromised view of the situation. The less we know about our therapists the better, right? The last thing you want is to be talking to your therapist about your troubles and have them start down lengthy “omg me too, but what happened to me was…”.
This type of relationship really only becomes threatening when they seem “strange” to us. Most of us have those alarm bells in our gut that tell us there is something about this person that doesn’t make sense. Miriam Webster’s definition explains that a stranger isn’t just someone that doesn’t belong, but someone that is kept from belonging or engaging. Whether it be by their own choices, the actions of the group, or responding to those little bells going off.
Stranger Danger as a concept (people we don’t know are risky) may have been around a long time but the actual Stranger Danger movement developed in the 1960s, when kidnappings or crimes against children took a relatively sudden upward swing in frequency across England and America. People could not accept that friends and family would have missed seeing something untoward, or worse still actively harm another, so without specific details, society developed the idea that strangers were to blame, and built a character with no moral compass who was bad just because we didn’t know them. We now know that the vast majority of violent crime perpetrated on both children and adults is generally done by someone close to them. This isn’t to say that strangers aren’t a threat, but the way we act towards them has definitely changed over time.
The advent of social media, internet communication, and the ‘verification’ systems they use, have absolutely warped the stranger danger rules. In online dating, the idea of meeting a stranger in public is the norm, and making it a crowded place is the safety function we put in place. And this brief introduction seems to suffice to stop calling someone a stranger… based on what, I am not sure. But let some real life 3D human ask about your day, or hold a door for you, and those alarm bells are ready to ring again!
Is this us being stupid, or does it say something about a renewed level of trust in society. Sure, it’s not foolproof, but the frequency and success of the behaviour would have to suggest that most strangers are ok … right? Or are we actually stubbornly trying to live our lives without wanting to adhere to the suffocating rules of social safety conventions which insist we stay away from everyone we don’t know… also an impossible feat in this day and age.
Funnily enough, the internet has also created a bit of role switch for strangers we used to trust- anyone in a uniform. Policemen, taxi drivers, military personnel. Nowadays, social media regularly spotlights professional transgressions and provided reasons we can’t blindly trust all of them… namely, they’re human. But, give me a casually dressed Uber driver with a cut out logo sticky-taped to his back window and we don’t think twice about it… The App says he’s verified and that we’re safe, and we trust that a lot more than a uniform, for the most part.
So how should we deal with strangers? At the risk of sounding just a bit cliché, what if you focus on not being a stranger to yourself. Yep, we said it. But knowing what you need in life, what feels right to you, what your gut is saying, and why it’s doing that… that goes a long way in interacting with people. Then the arbitrary element of whether this person has been in your life prior to this moment can be a secondary, though still relevant factor.