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Smile at Strangers, And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly by Susan Schorn

Discussion topics, questions, and activities for book clubs and reading groups from author Susan Schorn:

Safety information and misinformation

1. In an early chapter of Smile at Strangers, I describe some not-very-helpful self defense emails I have received, and why they are counter-productive to our safety.

  • What kinds of self defense advice (helpful or not!) have people in your group been given in the past? (you might keep track of all the tips people share by writing each one on a sticky note or index card, and arranging them so everyone can see them during the discussion).
  • How were these self defense tips shared (in person, television or radio news, commercials, Web ads, emails, etc.)?
  • Have you used any of these tips? Which ones seem practical? cartoon porn games Which ones are not?
  • What kinds of advice have YOU passed on to other people? What motivated you to do that? What kind of response did you get?


2. You may notice patterns emerging when you look at all the pieces of advice recounted by the group, taken all together. What does this “big picture” reveal?

  • What assumptions do these safety tips make about men and women?
  • What sort of picture do they paint about the world we live in?
  • Have you noticed similar assumptions and patterns elsewhere in our culture?


3. We can improve the safety information we have access to if we think strategically about our needs, and how to meet them.

  • What kinds of advice or knowledge about self defense do you WISH you had access to?
  • How might you get good information on those topics? Could you talk to someone in your community about crime patterns? Consult an expert on physical self defense? Read government reports or research about characteristics of victims?
  • How can share useful information productively, to empower people and increase safety in your community?


Mind-Body Connections

One very important part of the journey I describe in Smile at Strangers has been understanding how the mind and body fit together—how one can influence the other. Personally, I know I have to engage both parts of myself  in order to solve my most difficult challenges. I can think of at least four different kinds of physical activity that are important to me:

1. Recreational exercise (running, swimming, walking);

2. Karate, especially sparring, which is my way of physically confronting violence without suffering serious trauma;

3. Practical self defense practice, where I train my body to stand and move in ways that reflect power and confidence;

4. Meditation, where I work on reconciling internal conflicts through awareness rather than exertion.


  • What physical activities and routines do you have that help you stay healthy and in touch with your body, or that build your strength, skills and sense of self-worth?
  • What kinds of physical activities have you tried before (even as a child!)? What did you like or dislike about them? Are there any you’d like to go back to?
  • What are some activities you might like to try in the future? Can you make a plan to try out a new activity, perhaps with someone else in the group?



According to the Mayo Clinic [] meditation is an effective way to manage stress. It certainly works for me! Here is a five-minute meditation and breathing exercise your group can try. This might work best at the end of your time together, since it’s a good way to re-focus on yourself and your own internal activity. Remember that there are many different forms of meditation, so if this one doesn’t appeal to you, try another!


  • Sit comfortably—you can sit seiza (on your knees), or cross-legged, or in a chair—whatever makes sense for your body. Try to sit with your spine straight, so you can breathe freely. You can even lie down on your back if you want to.
  • Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. As you breath in through your nose, let the air drop all the way down inside your body. If you place a hand on your stomach, you should feel it move outward as you breathe in. Your chest should not move much at all. Imagine a water balloon attached to a faucet—the balloon fills and stretches at the bottom first. Let the air fill your lungs the same way.
  • Slowly exhale, again through your nose. At the end of each inhalation and exhalation, try to relax and pause. Don’t hold your breath, but rather, give your body time to reverse the action of your lungs slowly and naturally. An image I like to visualize when I focus on my breathing is a feather caught on an updraft. When it reaches the peak of its flight upward, and begins to drift back down, there is an instant when the feather pauses, motionless, in the air. This is how you should feel in the space between inhaling and exhaling—not frozen, just perfectly free.
  • Continue breathing in and out naturally, but try to lengthen each inhalation and exhalation, increasing the amount of time you spend drawing breath in and letting it flow out. Do not strain to do this! It’s easy to get caught up in your desire to meditate “better,” but that tends to make you tense up and then it’s hard to control your breathing. Have patience with yourself, and keep trying!



Practical Self Defense



This activity is a fun way to start off a session. Have all but one person close their eyes, and then and answer the following questions (make sure everyone is far enough apart so they won’t bump each other when pointing):

  • How many people here are wearing something blue (or red, or eyeglasses, or boots, etc.)?
  • Who remembers who came into the room last?
  • Who can tell me what items are on the table?
  • Who knows how many exits there are from this room?
  • Who can point to the nearest exit to the outside of the building?
  • Who can point to the mirror (window, kitchen door, piano, etc.)?

The person asking questions can add in anything else in the room that people might have noticed.


For discussion:

  • What did you find easy/hard to remember?
  • What kinds of things do you usually notice about a new space? What do you remember about it after you leave?
  • What kinds of observations about our space can make us safer?
  • Where can we practice our awareness of details like these? (some suggestions: While waiting in line at the bank, visiting someone in a new apartment building, airports, subway stations, etc.)

This is a great activity to share with kids as well!


“Just say no”

In Smile at Strangers, I recount how this activity completely changed the way I think about self defense. Author Rhoda Janzen has written about how she tried this activity after reading my account of it, on the Her.meneutics blog at Christianity Today.



You’ll need a timekeeper. Everyone else should find a partner.

  • One person will ask questions. These don’t have to make a coherent argument, but they should be realistic: “Can you give me a ride to Alice’s party? Why not? Aren’t we friends?” or “Can you take my Friday night shift for me? How come you won’t help me out? Don’t I always help you when you ask?” Or questioners can ask for bus fare, a spare cigarette, the use of a phone, etc. They should not threaten or yell. Just be persistent.
  • On person will answer “No” to all the questions. DON’T smile! DON’T laugh! And DO look your questioner in the eye at all times!
  • Try this for sixty seconds, and then switch roles.


For discussion:

  • Which was harder, asking questions, or saying “No”? What was hard about it?
  • What were you thinking as you played each role? How did you feel afterward?
  • Share a situation you have been in before where you wanted to say “No,” but didn’t. Why didn’t you?
  • In what situations have you said “No”?


Step In, Step Out

This is a way to explore our personal boundaries, and remind ourselves to listen to our instinctive responses.

First, practice the “Invisible Wall” with a partner:

1. Stand across the room from your partner, and have him or her walk towards you. Maintain eye contact with him or her.

2. When your partner gets close enough that you would them to stop, raise your hands at about chest level or lower, fingers up, palms out, in a “Stop” gesture.

3. As you do this, move one foot back slightly, so you have a more solid stance.

4. Say, firmly, “Stop.”

5. Stop when your partner tells you to!


Repeat this a few times so both partners can try out each role. Then, add this variation:


6. When your partner says stop, stop for a moment. Then, take one more step closer. Maintain eye contact, but otherwise don’t change anything. Just stay in your partner’s space for about five seconds.


For discussion:

  • Talk (or write) for a few minutes about the sensation of having someone intrude inside your personal boundary. How does it feel? What does your body tell you to do in that situation? What are you anticipating?
  • What could you do to increase your comfort level or safety in a situation where someone is too close?


You can also practice ways to re-establish your boundaries—for example, saying “I need you to give me more space,” or “Please move back.” It’s a good idea to accompany these statements with movement of your own, to set a more comfortable distance between you and your partner. But move purposefully, and maintain eye contact as you speak and move.



Personal Growth and the Adventurous Life

We grow as people through a combination of fate and our own actions. I didn’t begin training seriously in karate until I was in my thirties, ten years after I first encountered the martial arts.

  • Think about where you were ten years ago. How are you different today?
  • Are there parts of your life you’re better prepared for now? How did you get that way?
  • Ten years from now, what kind of person would you like to be?
  • What are some specific actions you could take to start yourself on that path? Could you take some classes? Change some old habits? Make new connections?


Write some of these possibilities down, and keep them in your daily planner or calendar. As you go about managing the life you have right now, think about ways you can make room for the life you want to have next.



A note on triggering and privacy issues:

Any time we discuss issues related to their personal safety, we may experience strong emotional reactions. In any group of women, you can be almost certain that at least some group members have been the victims of violence. And even if they haven’t, people can still respond viscerally to frightening topics. So it’s a good idea to begin your discussion of Smile at Strangers with a reminder that no one should feel obligated to talk about personal experiences that make them uncomfortable.


Also, encourage your group participants to engage in active self-care: If the discussion makes them uncomfortable, they should feel free to step out of the group for as long as they need to. If you are leading the group, try not to let the conversation center on any one person’s experience (especially negative experiences) for too long, and be responsive to signs of discomfort. If the discussion becomes too emotionally charged, move the group on to a new topic. This will help everyone build positive and empowering memories of their discussion of an important subject, and help them have more such conversations in the future.

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