Charlie O'Donnell: We're Making Younger Generations Fear The Outside World

I’m sure danah and Alice can talk about this more intelligently, but I was thinking yesterday about the way people grow up and how that affects their perception of strangers. 

Dahah has written a lot about “stranger danger” and how it relates to use of the internet and I’m a big believer that we’re making younger generations fear the outside world to their own detriment. In a world where your networking power is based on loose connections with people you don’t know that well, not being able to meet strangers is a disadvantage.

What I’ve noticed, though, is that among kids who grow up with more money, they’re often exposed to fewer strangers. Their fun is more organised—play dates, sports teams, dance class, gymnastics.  When you grow up on the Upper East Side, you don’t play in front of your house on your own.

When I grew up, we played in the street. There were 12 kids on my working class street in Bensonhurst.  (Unfortunately, most of them lived on the other side, which posed a real problem for me before I was old enough to cross the street.  I spent a lot of time shouting across the street to my parents to “cross me!” when everyone else went inside for dinner—because you can’t let 7 year olds cross the streets by themselves in Brooklyn.)   I’d run outside and play, and I was typically being loosely watched by the small pieces loosely joined network of parents or neighbours—but often times we were out of sight.  We might have been down by the garages at the end of the block and at some point, we were allowed to go around the block one street in each direction, and then two. 

We definitely encountered a fair number of strangers—the Hallelujah Man (who walked up the street listening to Christian music and telling everyone that Hallelujah, Jesus loves them), the Can Man (the ancient Asian guy who collected cans out of our garbages and carried big bags of them on each end of a broomstick), and “Your Best Four.”  That was the name we gave to the jerks on the next block up from us who saw our basketball net on wheels and challenged us to a game:

Your best four against our best four for that net.”

Four of us gave them the finger and we said, “Here’s your best four.”  

Point is, we constantly had to navigate interactions with new people.  When I was 14, I started taking the subway into the city to go to Regis High School.  I’m sure there were probably times I wasn’t as safe as I could be—but I figured it out and learned.  I think a lot of my upbringing helped me assess new people now.  My world now is full of strangers.  People e-mail or Tungle me and I take meetings left and right with people I don’t know.  If I wasn’t comfortable with strangers, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.

People comfortable with people you don’t know and being able to quickly assess people is a skill that gives someone a real leg up in networking.  We’re told it is wrong to be judgmental, but you *have to* be—is this person a potentially good hire, do I trust this investor, do I want to go on another date with this person?  You constantly have to make little decisions about new people every day.

I’m afraid that younger generations—especially the ones who are the most educated and who come from the “best” backgrounds are seriously lacking in this skill.  Our Ivy League grads from two lawyer households in Westchester are often less able to network in the chaotic jungle of an 800 person tech meetup than the child of immigrant parents who went to Baruch who grew up playing whiffleball in a Sheepshead Bay schoolyard.  Granted, I’m generalising badly here, but I see a lot of college kids who simply didn’t interact with nearly as many strangers as I did—and certainly not as many strangers online as I do now.  Their online interactions are sanitised for their protection, whereas I used to go poke around in the AOL Member Search to see if there were any interesting people (girls) in my neighbourhood worth talking to. 

I was thinking of a classroom assignment this semester about getting my students to a public place and forcing them to introduce themselves to 10 strangers.  I’d love to match the results and reactions to their backgrounds to see who is or isn’t comfortable meeting new people.

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