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talk to strangers

“Don’t talk to strangers” was the theme for my generation growing up. It remains the theme today in most parenting advice columns.

With pedophiles and murderers on every mother’s mind… it’s not surprising that we continue to insist on this rule.

“Don’t talk to strangers” when said to a child in the context of protecting them is a necessary blanket statement that we hope will keep them from getting into that strangers white van or accepting a piece of candy from the old man behind the playground.

Now, maybe this is just me, but I think somewhere deep in the file cabinet I call a brain, I still hear this warning when I’m around people I don’t know. This silent warning has blended with my “introversion” and “shyness” and kept me from lots of joy.

You might be wondering why I just brought up joy. If you think that joy is happiness, it shouldn’t have anything to do with maintaining that rule of “Don’t talk to strangers”.

But joy isn’t happiness.

Joy is relational.

joy glad to be together

Joy is the reaction in our brain when someone is glad to be with us. a

This can happen when we’re experiencing a happy situation, a sad one, a scary one.... any situation at all.

But it only happens in the context of RELATIONSHIP. Joy is what we need. It helps our brain grow healthy connections. Joy reduces stress, improves our immune system, improves resiliency and transforms lives for the better.

For people like me, who “shy” away from meeting new people; that means joy is hard to come by unless I’m with my existing “people”.

The problem is, I moved a lot. I moved so much growing up that in 12 years of school I went to 12 different schools.

That meant that I was constantly meeting “strangers”. The file cabinet in my brain made it an extremely lengthy and difficult process to make friends. Whether I realized it or not, I was fearful of new people and new relationships. Even though that’s exactly what I longed for.

It’s not the ideal environment for joy when you’re afraid of everyone.

Now don’t get me wrong… I was not CONSCIOUSLY aware that I was afraid of people. This was a fear I wasn’t in touch with. But that’s the really special thing about our brain… it does quite a few things automatically without us realizing it!

joyful friends relationships

God designed our brains to come alive in the context of relationships with Himself, and with other people.

When I walk around avoiding eye contact, avoiding conversation, and embracing my “shyness”, my brain becomes starved for joy.

But what if I wasn’t trained to be afraid of everyone? What if I saw people I met as opportunities for joy? What if I opened myself up to relationships and my brain was fed with those relationships?

Do you know what else your brain can do all by itself? It can read people. In the world of psychology it’s part of what they call “emotional intelligence”.

For our purposes, let’s just call it the “reading system”.b The reading system helps our brain interpret what’s going on in others brains. However, if it isn’t working correctly, I might “misread” you.

Actually, let me be honest... SINCE mine isn’t working correctly, I’m controlled by fear because I can’t read you! Better to be safe than sorry is my brain’s motto.

Another way to look at this, is that if I’m feeling fear (unbeknownst to me), and your reading system works well, it will recognize that I’m afraid and your interactions with me will be colored by that knowledge… even though you didn’t consciously form an opinion about me! c

Being “wired” in the brain with fear is really a major hindrance to anyone who is trying to build joy.

That’s where an active relationship with Immanuel can help. Immanuel is able to

Immanuel God with us

help me recognize my own fears, and when I am able to look at them with honesty and vision set in reality, I can then use the facts of what’s really going on around me to determine whether or not my “fear” is justified. 9 times out of 10, it’s not. And for those times when fear was a healthy reaction to the person in front of me, Jesus is able to help me feel safe again.

Now I can talk to strangers. I can see people as opportunities to smile and make friends; even if it’s just while I’m standing in line at Wal-Mart. I can build joy everywhere I go. It’s good for me, and it’s good for them. When I’m not living out of fear, joy has a chance to grow.


a: “Joy Starts Here” by James Wilder, Edward Khouri, Chris Coursey, and Shelia Sutton

b: "Brain-Based Parenting" by Daniel A. Hughes and Jonathan Baylin

c: “Reading a face is tricky business”

Photos by Memories Captured Photography- my old business name.

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