When compassion and manners are overrated
by Sarah Smith*
When I was a kid, the first lesson my parents drilled into my head was “Never, ever talk to strangers”. But as I grew older, other lessons replaced that much-repeated phrase: “Be polite to your elders," or “Have empathy for your fellow human beings." It was not until late one Friday night I realized how vulnerable these values have made me.
I was riding the train from New York to Connecticut. It was late, and I was eager to get home. I was also alone but had taken this train many times. Mistake one: Assuming familiar territory is safe.
The train was semi-empty and as I was boarding an older man followed me. He was dressed in a suit, carrying a Blackberry and a briefcase, and about 55 or 60. In other words, he resembled every other businessman that commutes to and from New York. Mistake two: Assuming a “regular-looking” guy was harmless.
He sat across from me, in one of those booth seats. He said hello to me and I responded politely. He asked me where I was going I said, vaguely “Connecticut” and he nodded. He told me he was from India, but worked in New York. In many ways his mannerisms were not unlike those of my grandfather or father, who both like to engage strangers in conversation to meet new people. Unfortunately he soon veered off any normal conversation pattern. He looked upset and suddenly declared “My family was killed in a tsunami in India, that’s why I had to switch companies, because my original employer only gave me 10 days to find them”. I was completely blindsided, unsure of how to respond and incredibly uncomfortable. Something seemed off, the fact that he was expressing these thoughts to me, a young woman on a train at night seemed wrong, but he was older, he was potentially in pain and he seemed to need to talk, so I listened. Mistake three: Being a good girl and ignoring my instincts rather than being rude and leaving.
And so began a rambling history interspaced with questions directed at me about my major, my interests, my school etc. I was holding a book; a remnant from a time earlier in the evening when I had thought this would be a quiet ride. Now I felt glued to the seat, unable to leave yet growing more and more uncomfortable by the second. Suddenly he switched topics from telling me the importance of family to inviting me into New York to see a show and have dinner together. I said I did not travel into the city often and was not sure that would be a good idea. He changed topics again, referring back to my major of biology and conservation. He told me of a friend in Kenya, a friend who ran a preserve and told me I could obtain an internship there if I liked. He suggested we travel there together. He was repeating himself, like my older grandparents do sometimes but now it seemed less forgetful and much more frightening. He had already told me I should go see “Gorillas in the Mist” four separate times and it seemed like each time he did not remember that he had already told me. I was horrified, frustrated, and unsure of myself. How had something so innocent transformed into a nightmare? I had tried to call someone earlier but my phone was not working, the train must be interfering with it. Mistake four: Forcing myself to remain polite and worrying about hurting his feelings when it was becoming more and more clear my safety might be at stake.
By now he was suggesting that he get off with me at my stop. I told him my parents were picking me up (a lie) and that was not a good idea. He insisted on giving me his personal information, but his hand shaking so hard he could barely hold the pen. I was pretty sure he was on something, but I was not sure what. He got off at his stop, wishing me well and telling me to call him. I thought “No way in hell” and shoved the piece of paper in my bag, near tears and overwhelmed. An older couple came up to me, they had been watching (and probably eavesdropping) and told me they were worried about me and were watching out for my safety since he had seemed to them to be “a rapist.” They told me to keep his information just in case. Some of my confidence in strangers was restored but I was still shaking for two hours afterward.
I thought it would end there, an upsetting but remote encounter. Again I was so wrong. A day later I received an e-mail from him. He had looked up my name on the Princeton website and wanted to meet up. I cursed my stupidity, my natural trust, and all my false assumptions. Now I lock my door, because if he has my e-mail he also knows my address. I won’t respond to the e-mail but I am going to buy some mace. Mistake on Princeton’s part: The fact that our personal information is listed for anyone to see.
It was not until later that I realized how well I had been played. He used my compassion and my natural politeness to hold me hostage with nothing more than words. I thought I was savvy but I have come out feeling naïve. While I know this not my fault, that there is not excuse for forcing contact with someone and potentially stalking them, I wish more than anything that I had made just one less mistake. Being polite and kind is wonderful but it also makes one susceptible to manipulation. From now on, I am sticking to that original rule: Don’t talk to strangers.
*The name attached to this piece is a pseudonym. Because of the nature of the article, the author has asked to remain anonymous.