Talk to Strangers: Doctor Challenges Common Myth

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If we never speak to strangers, we will never learn anything, have any friends, or ever be truly secure. L.B. Grotte, M.D., believes that giving this advice to children actually makes them less safe. It is time to challenge the assumption that we should obediently accept living in a culture of fear. Dr. Grotte recommends six steps for reducing fear in your life.

A group attending a talk on African Medicine at a festival in New York last month was startled to hear a doctor advise them that they should not be afraid to speak to strangers. "I could see that people were uncomfortable with this idea at first. Parents especially are used to lecturing their children 'don't talk to strangers' as a way of keeping them safe," said Lee Grotte, M.D. "But this sort of advice creates a climate of fear, and I believe that it is safer to actually teach children the communication skills that will help them to spot and avoid trouble before it begins."

Fearfulness has become so pervasive in our society that Grotte believes radical steps are necessary. "There is a constant drumbeat of alarm that emanates from the media, from the government, and even from the medical profession," he says. "Too many people in authority use fear as motivation, and this is counterproductive. We need to find new ways to establish trust between ourselves, not build a wall of fright."

Fear isolates and alienates people, he believes, and often leads to changes in body chemistry that contribute to disease. "I see increasing numbers of people who are suffering physical and mental damage from the effects of constant fear and anxiety. Children pick up very quickly on their parents' fearfulness, and the effects are transmitted throughout the family."

Grotte believes that one of the advantages to tribal styles of medicine, such as the West African tradition, is that there is a natural trusting relationship among members. He suggests that cooperative activities then serve as preventative medicine. "People in tribal societies come together in ceremonies and rituals to celebrate a joyful event, or share grief over a loss, or rouse the energies and courage of the group to overcome an obstacle or a fear."

"The cliché is that a burden shared is a burden lifted, and we see in many medical relationships that there is a great deal of truth to this concept. Modern trends towards healing church services, drum circles, and neighborhood parties reflect this human need for social connection."

Grotte believes that when people come together in this way, there is a stress reducing effect on the entire community.

Modern physicians often dismiss older medical technologies as being ineffective, but research often validates the value of time tested tribal practices.

For example, friendships were even more important than family connections in increasing life span according to a recent study in the Journal of Epidemiological and Community Health.

Also, scientific research by Barry Bittman M.D. indicates that when people drum together, there is benefit for the immune and stress hormone systems. Group activities such as dancing are not only good exercise, but are stress relieving. "I have seen the same benefit for ritual dancing where there is interaction between the musicians and the dancers," says Grotte.

Grotte suggests six steps for reducing fear in your life:

1. Stop watching TV and reading newspapers and magazines. "Most of what you read and watch is sensationalized and designed to push your fear or anger buttons, anyway," says Grotte. "If you think you can't live without media contact, try it for three days. I think you will discover many benefits, including more time for productive activity."

2. Begin to make eye contact with strangers for just a little longer than you are used to. Practice smiling as you do this.

3. If you are not used to speaking to strangers, start by saying hello, good morning, or another statement that doesn't require a response from the other person such as "how are you?"

4. If you are not comfortable speaking, just smile and imagine a pleasant greeting in your head until you are comfortable actually saying the words out loud.

5. If you sense a positive response to your initial greeting, try to engage a stranger in brief conversation. Remember, people like to talk about themselves, so try to listen more than you talk.

6. If you have small children, let them watch you interact with strangers. They will learn how to be comfortable by learning from you. Talk with them about how to notice when a stranger is taking an unusual or fixed interest in them, and what to do.

"Children actually have very good instincts about most people." notes Grotte. "They are nimble and quick, and can usually note danger and escape effectively if they are not surprised or paralyzed with fear. Talk with your children frankly about the need to avoid some situations, but try to give them confidence rather than scare them. There are enough fears in most children's lives already."

Dr. Grotte is in private practice in Cleveland. He has teamed with two magicians at a Las Vegas magic school to teach doctors how to communicate in ways that overcome fear. Details of this workshop are available at

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Lee Grotte, M.D.

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