Before we got started, I asked them how they felt about talking to strangers. They exploded, speaking all in one voice: "I don't even like ordering food in a restaurant." "I ask my little brother to call for appointments so I don't have to." "I like it when people--even weird people--talk to me, but I never ever will be the one to approach a stranger." These girls made it clear that while most of them enjoy social encounters, they almost always want someone else to start them. And there were a few girls who wanted nothing to do with strangers at all.
Needless to say, this led to an interesting workshop. They were nervous but ready for the challenge, and when I explained the idea of social objects (external objects that can be the basis for conversation) they got pretty engaged in the activity. One pair of girls did a survey in a grocery store about whether "the grass is always greener on the other side." One pair started out with a "chicken and the egg" question, but then moved to something more interesting and subversive (a sign outside a pharmacy that recently was bought by CVS asking people which business they preferred). As one girl said, "when we had a mission and a sign, it was easier to talk to people."
After this was all over, we talked about the experience. While they had mostly developed performative approaches to the task, by the end, they were more interested in developing listening approaches - for example, constructing a "tell me a story" booth. And while most of them aren't likely to jump at the opportunity to talk to strangers in the near future, several commented that they'd like to try more "social engineering" experiments in their lives.
For me, the experience changed my perspective on what teens want from social environments and encounters. Frequently, when cultural professionals talk about making museums and libraries more open to young people, we focus on social events and on the idea that these are people who would really LIKE to interact with others in the cultural space. It's easy to forget that teens are most comfortable being social with those they already know, not people who are unknown to them. Online, see Danah Boyd's research for more on how teens use social networks as an extension of pre-existing relationships as opposed to using online environments to meet new folks.
But the experience also reminded me that with a game, a mission, or an external prompt, the same fearful kids can become engaged with strangers in enjoyable ways. And in this way, they're no different from many adults.
Or are they? When I talked with (adult) friends about the experience, some wondered if kids today are acculturated to be more afraid of strangers than kids were in generations past. I'm not so sure this is true. Until I was about ten, I was scared to ask for directions or talk to strangers in public. I don't think I was afraid of the strangers--I was afraid of exposing and embarrassing myself.
I can imagine two arguments for young people being more afraid of strangers than adults:
- This is a developmental thing. As you get older, you get more comfortable talking to strangers.
- This is a cultural thing. These girls grew up in the US in a post-9/11 world, in a culture of fear that is more powerful than the one I grew up in.