Stranger (is not always) Danger

Stranger (is not always) Danger

imageHow might we engage with others in ways that seek ‘connection’, rather than efficacy? What may we do to move toward ‘meeting’ others (even if only for a brief moment), rather than attending ‘meetings’ where the only purpose is outcomes? Why at times can we feel challenged connecting with new people?

All of these questions, and more, emerged as I reflected on a conversation shared recently with John*. I’ll elaborate further on this shortly.

Before I do though, let’s begin with a story from my childhood.

Growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, children in Australia were indoctrinated into the ‘Stranger Danger’ campaign ( As a child of this era, one could not escape messages of; “don’t trust anyone you don’t know” and, “beware of ‘strange’ people, as they must be dangerous”.

There were some good reasons behind the campaign; kidnapping, child sexual abuse & kids going missing. In Australia there were a small number of traumatic and horrific events that I can recall hearing about on the ‘six o’clock news’, and I wouldn’t wish any of those dreadful occurrences on anybody. Although these ‘events’ were rare, it didn’t stop the (various forms of) media from amplifying them to a point that some kids became worried, anxious and nervous about contact with new people – it wasn’t safe.

What a challenging irony, that with a campaign designed to ensure Safety, a by-product was that that kids felt unsafe. I wonder how much of this ‘hyper-safety’ thinking may have led to today’s increased levels of anxiety, addiction and loneliness (

Back to my story with John.

I was on a short flight recently and the plane was only half full. From what I could see, most people had no-one sitting next to them except John and me. As is my usual practice, I boarded with papers and reading in hand. There’s a lot happening at this time of year and I’ve much that I’d like to achieve before the year finishes, so I was looking forward to reading through the papers, it would be an efficient use of my time.

My plans changed.

John is in his mid 70’s and he politely greeted me as I sat beside him. He introduced himself and told me that he had been visiting his primary school for ‘speech day’, a tradition that has developed over the past 15 years. John told me that it’s an event that he looks forward to with anticipation every year.

John is a retired General Practitioner (GP), although he says that he still works a few days a month, just to ‘stay in touch’ and also because he really enjoys ‘helping’ others. He confessed too that he relishes the many conversations he has with his patients, learning about their lives, families and challenges. John appreciates ‘being’ with others and his ‘meetings’ seem as much about ‘communing’ than they are about outcomes.

Had I followed the instructions from ‘stranger danger’, there would have been no discussion with John on that plane. Instead, we enjoyed a delightful conversation.

Whilst John and I were talking, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the other passengers were fixated either on their technological devices or were reading business material (I could see the graphs, tables and charts – and fair enough, most were probably flying for work purposes). They seemed to be very pre-occupied, most likely preparing for the type of meeting where ‘no real meeting takes place’. On boarding the plane, I was planning on doing the same, however the papers that I boarded with remained ‘safely in the seat pocket in front of me’.

Meanwhile, John and I learned a lot about each other as our conversation continued. We talked about our families, our work and interests. I learned about his wife, who is a Professor of Mental Health Nursing and has written 15 books and published more than 300 papers. I learned also of his 3 kids; incidentally, one of whom was born in the ‘year of the pig’, his 8 grandkids and importantly his 4-month-old dog. Our shared questions prompted a conversation that included; ‘i-thou’, ‘social influences in life’ and a contemplation of what it means to be ‘in community’ with others.

In John’s words, it was a ‘most delicious conversation’.

You may be thinking; ‘so what, you had a chat with a bloke on a plane, no news here’, and I can understand this. But the point of this story is multifaced and to me, it threw up some questions that I thought might be worth reflecting on:

· How often, in our busy and efficiency-focused lives, do we miss the opportunity to connect with others and therefore also miss important opportunities for learning, growing and developing?

· How may campaigns such as ‘stranger danger’ paradoxically while promoting ‘Safety’, may at the same time lead to anxiousness and loneliness?

· What if our focus was on discernment rather than the elimination of, or the fear of, risk?

What would you do if you sat next to John on a plane?

*Name not changed, as this was a chat with a real bloke called John. A real person and a real conversation – how delicious indeed!


Author: Robert Sams



Book: Social Sensemaking – Click HERE to Order

Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

7 Replies to “Stranger (is not always) Danger”

  1. Thanks Rob. I too was taught the mantras of ‘stranger danger’ but when I worked in social and community services discovered that most assaults, abuse and harm is delivered by people known and trusted to the victim.We are in fact much more safe with strangers!
    This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be intelligent about risks but rather based on statistics it is not always those who we trust who will behave the most ethically. We may in fact be much safer in public rather than private places.
    The Royal Commission into Abuse of Children documents how the professions used trust to exploit and brutalise children. Of course, a profession that doens’t behave ethically cannot be a profession, regardless of how many claims are made to the contrary. One thing is for sure, if one constantly speaks the ideology of zero, there is not likely to be anything ethical that follows. Zero justifies brutalism and I saw plenty of that in Howard’s ‘war on drugs’ and totalitarian ‘zero tolerance’ campaigns, which of course all failed miserably but cost a heap of money. The NT Intervention is a classic Billion dollar failed demonstration of zero ideology. Such an ideology is brilliant at fear and poor at being human.
    Unfortunately, Safety teaches people not to listen and one can only ‘meet’ another by suspending agenda and embracing another worldview. This is the basis for learning and education that one reads little about in safe Safety, and the indoctrination of checklists and matrices.
    One never hears the words ‘discernment’ or ‘wisdom’ in the safety literature, says a great deal.

  2. Excellent article! I often find the most value at a conference or training session during a break, when there can be a genuine meeting of ideas.

    The second issue you touched is the generational effect of ‘stranger danger.’ How do you expect a kid brought up on ‘stranger danger’ and thus disconnected from the community, to respond when put behind a retail counter? Or who sees something unattended that is worth stealing from a faceless member of the community he or she has been programmed to resent and fear? Is it any wonder that the same people who taught kids ‘stranger danger’ are the same ones who complain about rude or disinterested service? Or have disconnected neighbours who cannot manage a polite greeting?

  3. What started as a voyage became a cruise. I must admit I often think the same when travelling by plane, people became isolated in the crowd, it is almost a deliberate strategy to become immersed in the book or papers so that you don’t make eye contact. Even the simple task of giving the flight attendant five minutes of attention is too difficult for most people, it is often the case that the flight attendant ends up looking directly at me because I’m the only one who is giving them some respect. What an amazingly powerful word “Conversation!”, my Grandmother was an expert at it, within five minutes she knew the life story of the “stranger”, her favourite phrase “there are no strangers, just people you haven’t met yet.

  4. Ah the irony of Safety, and here was me just a short few years ago preaching that it was “a choice we make”. As I can now recognise, my time in Safety taught and encouraged me not to think, well certainly not too deeply. Whenever I hear the phrase ‘zero tolerance’ now, I associate it with; not seeking to understand, not accepting of falliability and no space for being human. Quite sad really, yet so understandable in a world that seems fixated on being perfect.

    Thanks for your comments Rob.

  5. Thanks Ray.

    It surely does bring to the surface the ‘paradox of Safety’. If only we, as a community and society could thinking more critically and focus on discernment and learning, rather than ‘solutions and fixes’, imagine where this might lead.

    Funnily enough, I sometimes find those times that you mention at conferences to be the most challenging, especially when I was consulting. I used to present at quite a number, was rarely paid, and I reflect and think that the people I most sought out were those that I saw efficacy in. There were few conversations had in that social context like the one I had with John. Yet, I can see your point and agree that there is much opportunity for ‘delicious’ in those moments, if there is no agenda other than to meet.

    Appreciate your thoughts mate.



  6. Yes Rob it happens all too often, simply getting on with our own agenda and not ‘meeting’ with people. Even more sad is that we do this with our own family and friends. It’s definitely time that we stop using time and technology as the mantras of our time for not connecting with people.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below