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January 17, 2008



Given the social opprobrium against "accosting" a stranger in our society, an accostor is always facing the question in the accostee's mind: "Why has this person flaunted social norms to approached me?" This discourages ordinary accostors and increases the chances, from an accostee's point of view, that any given accostor is deranged, has an antisocial goal in mind, or, especially with men approaching women, is about to wax boorishly presumptuous.

All that said, without the opprobrium starting the cycle, I think it would be a very normal, low-stress thing. Even for those who are especially socially adept (and at least minimally attractive), "accosting" without causing much alarm or suspicion remains possible or even easy; we have merely imposed a handicap on such random acts of gregariousness.


This is an interesting topic, and I'd like to discuss it in detail, but for now, I'll just give my attitude about accosting.

Accosting, in general, doesn't bother me. I don't have any reservations about accosting others either. However, I don't usually have the time to meet and chat with random strangers -- I always have someplace else to be and something else to do -- so in that case, I try to avoid accosting on both fronts. When I'm bored and have nothing better to do, sometimes I do accost others or welcome others' accosting. I imagine that people who are busy are involved in the accosting process less, and that people who are not busy are involved in accosting more. So free-time is an important variable (the most important in my case). Of course there are other variables like personal disposition, societal etiquette, venue/context, and so forth. Clearly it wouldn't be a good idea to accost someone in a war zone, like in areas of Iraq or Afghanistan, at least not in the open or in a non-trustworthy venue. It's also not a good idea to accost children in the presence of their parents, unless you also specifically engage the parents. So I guess trust is another major variable, and trust depends on all of the considerations brought up Nathan.

Nathan Smith

Actually, I think a war zone is a place where accosting would be common-- not accosting the enemy, of course, but accosting anyone whom one has good grounds to presume would be friendly. There would be an obvious topic of conversation: the progress of the war, the immediate danger and how to avoid it, whether there were any recent deaths, etc.

I think during 9/11 New Yorkers became more open to accosting. There are stories about strangers lending one another cell phones to call missing relatives. Is ease of accosting one of the channels through which crisis brings people together?


Certainly crisis lowers social barriers, in both good and bad ways.

Joyless Moralist

I think it also has to do with the density of people. In a small village, anyone who you haven't seen before is something interesting. In a large city where you pass hundreds of strangers every day, it's rather a different story. Supposing you decided to spend an afternoon accosting people. How would you decide which ones to accost? The fact that they've been picked out of a crowd makes people feel like a "target" and they immediately wonder, "is he selling something?" "Is he trying to pick me up?" "Does she want a handout?" etc.

But also, Americans place a high value on their privacy. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan, the city where I worked wasn't that small (pop. 500,000) but I got accosted all the time. Once people figured out that I was a foreigner they had no hesitation at all about just asking me where I was from, why I was there, how much money I made, why I wasn't married...

It was friendlier for sure, and sometimes I enjoyed these conversations. At the same time there were days when you thought, "It might not be so bad to live in a country where people are taught to mind their own business!"

merina smith

I think accosting occurs all the time, we're just don't always think that's what it is. People strike up conversations in all kinds of places starting with a word or two. If no one responds the accost is over, but if another person seems interested, they respond. It happens in places like movie lines, on airplanes, in stores, parks, etc. The trick is to come up with an interesting, general but non-threatening comment and then to be able to pick up the cues about whether or not the other person wants to continue the conversation.

Joyless Moralist

Yes, I actually think that's right. My husband is always amazed/amused at how often I end up in conversations with random strangers -- during a cab ride, over the counter at the deli, in line at the DMV, etc. It happens quite often to me and almost never to him. I think it's a combination of my being 1) friendlier and 2) less threatening-looking, than he is.

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