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Neighbors, strangers, or friends?
How quickly strangers become friends
and neighbors with just a smile.

Stranger or Neighbor?

450 words


Our survival may ultimately depend on the fine art of smiling at strangers
by Dianne Roth


I suspect all of us were raised to be cautious. “Don’t talk to strangers.” “Don’t make eye contact.”

It seemed like a good idea as I was raising my children. Not warning them about the dangers of strangers seemed somehow negligent. Even so, some of our grandest adventures happened when we were open to the strangers we met.

On a simple trip to the grocery store, my sons would find playmates while I was thumping watermelons or sniffing cantaloupes.

Out camping, they would make friends with the family in the next camp who would show them how to catch newts and release them back into the pond.

Shopping for shoes one time, my oldest son made friends with a woman named Baoma. The two of them talked and shared names and interests while I fitted my youngest into his first pair of shoes. Months later, while we were running errands in another part of town, my son confidently walked up to a woman and cheerily greeted her, “Hi Baoma!” They picked up where they left off and I was left trying to figure out who this person was that was so chummy with my three year old.

Lately, as often as possible, I walk rather than drive my car. In a town where nothing is more than two miles away, I see walking as a gift to myself and to the future of my grandchildren. But, in my walkings, I have become aware of how many people see me as the Stranger.

It makes sense in a way. We all taught our children about the dangers of strangers. Now, when I walk down the streets of our “village”, people I would like to see as a neighbors avert their gaze and speed their step. They sense that I am going to look into their eyes and they act as if, “sooner passed, sooner safe”.

Our collective wellbeing has been compromised by the collective fear we have of each other. We cannot have it both ways. If you trip on the sidewalk, or run out of gas, or need someone to step out of their blindered path to help find your car keys, we need to trust each other a bit. If we have smiled and greeted each other along our way, it will be easier to offer a helping hand.

I was taught the stranger lesson when I was young, but I have been very busy since, teaching myself a different lesson. These days, I smile and talk to anyone, anywhere, in any language. All it takes is eye contact and a smile.

What’s the harm?

And, who knows? Maybe we will all be a bit safer along our paths.


Dianne Roth is a teacher, mother, grandmother, and freelance writer. She lives in Oregon.




Last updated on November 2, 2015