Knowing the kindness of strangers


A NOTED etiquette expert spoke recently on the demise of American manners. According to her, we eat too fast, we don't write thank-you notes, we interrupt too often in conversation. Then, as an example of where we've really gone awry, the expert said, "And it's rude to pass a stranger on the street and not acknowledge that person with a smile and a hello. I wondered in which parallel universe she had been spending the past decade, how she could have missed the fact that strangers have become the enemy. Still, I admired her defense of strangers.

My own affinity for this group began 20 years ago when I moved to Manhattan. In the sanctimony that only one's 20s can produce, I found people's suspicion about strangers a bore. Outside the Museum of Natural History on a brisk Sunday morning, I decided to prove my overly cautious friends wrong.

I sat on a bench and made deliberate, light conversation with an older gentleman. The weather, my dog, the state of the economy -- it was all going splendidly until he looked over his left shoulder and began a low mumble that filtered softly out of one side of his mouth. "Venus and cream cheese," he said.

I found another bench, and while that may have cooled my zest temporarily, it hardly extinguished it. When I moved to smaller cities, my apprehension all but evaporated. I met the man I eventually married at work one evening after hours when he called up to my second-story window and asked me to let him in. He had forgotten his key, he said. I believed him.

I met one of my best friends the day she noticed me on the street with my sons. She walked over and introduced herself. We talked for 10 minutes, which was all the time it took to realize we had a lot in common. She invited us to follow her home for lunch. We did.

When we moved to Baltimore, a city where a woman called me "Hon," and the tenor was the friendliest I'd ever experienced, my children saw me talk to people we didn't know in grocery store lines, on elevators. And when we traveled with my husband on business, they watched me try to negotiate new cities by asking strangers for directions. As their role model, I often wondered if I was doing the right thing.

I read stranger abduction stories carefully and memorize children's faces on milk cartons the same way many mothers do. The Jamie Bulger and Polly Klass stories frighten and sicken all of us. But the reality is that a child has a greater chance of being hit by lightning than being abducted by a stranger. The sad truth is that the most dangerous place for U.S. children today is in their own homes.

I want my children to use their heads without viewing strangers as some monolithic group out to harm them. If I sensed I was in the motherhood zone years ago, I'm sure of it now.

In a radiologist's office on a recent morning, my son and I took seats in a cramped waiting room directly across from a young mother holding her preschooler on her lap. She was gently stroking the little boy's hair, slowly going over all the steps of an X-ray. He was clearly worried. When she stopped talking, I smiled at him and said, "My son is getting an X-ray, too," thinking it might ease his fear to see my 13-year-old taking it in stride.

The little boy looked up into his mother's face and asked incredulously, "Doesn't she know I'm not allowed to talk to strangers?"

His mother, speaking in an eerie third person as if I were not present, answered: "She's probably trying to be nice, but you're right, honey, you must never speak to strangers."

Somewhere, there must be a middle ground between the etiquette expert who smiles at everyone and the mother I so annoyed with my waiting-room small talk. Making friends in Central Park may not be an inspired idea. Neither is the implicit teaching that children are abducted from their mothers' laps.

In a country where we already eat too fast, interrupt too often and never pick up a pen to write a thank-you note, the last thing we need is a generation of children who grow up totally safe from strangers who might, of all things, turn out to be friends.

Linda DeMers Hummel writes from Timonium.

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