Imagine this scenario: you are in a crowded place, somewhere you’ve never been before. You walk up to a total stranger and hand him or her a very valuable and irreplaceable item, then walk away.

What a foolish thing to do! Who’d do such a thing?

Well, most of us have done that and many of us do it frequently.

Having recently returned from a week in the mountains of Colorado, I can tell you that scenario played out many times. Because there are times where selfies just won’t do, you need the assistance of someone else to help you get that perfect photo.

So you walk up to another tourist along the mountain ridge, ask if he would be so kind as to take your picture, hand him your cell phone and walk over to your family waiting for a group shot.

Then, he asks, “Could you take one of us?” You say, “Sure,” and he hands you his iPhone X and walks away. Sometimes you even end up with two or three phones – and at $800 or so apiece, that’s a pricey handful.

It’s a brazen act of trust in a skeptical world. The thought they might run off with your phone never crosses your mind.

We are paranoid today around strangers. We see scammers and robbers around us. We fear talking to someone unknown.

But yet we welcome talking to strangers in other circumstances–such as standing upon that mountain ridge looking upon glorious expanses of rocky peaks.

I recall long ago waiting in a slow-moving line at the grocery store checkout, starting a casual conversation with the person in front of me. My son, age about 7, started pulling on my jacket. “Mom, mom,” he whispered. “You aren’t supposed to talk to strangers,” he admonished. He’d just been through a safety presentation at school and worried about my breach in protocol.

It is indeed difficult to teach a 7-year-old that he should not talk to strangers in many situations but there are times when it’s just fine. Understanding that distinction takes years of life experience.

Conversations with strangers can be among the highlights of a vacation. You get travel tips–where the best restaurants really are or where there’s an especially scenic hike that is unknown to the crowds. You get perspective on how others view your world. “Minnesota, isn’t it really cold there?” Or the still heard words of sympathy. “Oh, I just loved Prince. I am so sorry for your loss.”

And then there is the “it’s a small world” connection as you chat with someone from Georgia, who shares, “Oh, my parents live in Coon Rapids, and they love the bike trails along the river.”

We tend to look at the fellow tourist without apprehension. Maybe we feel a kinship driven by our common needs for bug spray, sunglasses or umbrellas or by the bond that forms waiting in long lines to get into whatever exhibit we are told is a must-see.

Yet somehow, we look at the person next to us at the gas station, grocery store or public meeting with suspicion, especially if he or she looks different from ourselves.

That person may be a stranger to you, but he or she may not be strange at all. She may be just a typical American woman trying to juggle work and family. He might just be a rising star, someone whose invention will make a difference in the world.

Maybe a smile or a hello will make their day and yours. We really shouldn’t talk to strangers—except when we should.

Peggy Bakken is a former executive editor and a columnist for APG-East Central Minnesota. Reactions welcome:

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