You’ve heard the advice: Don’t talk to strangers.

Problem was, now that I was living in my van, especially sitting at a truck stop on a regular basis, I found that strangers would talk to me all the time. At first, my only goal was to avoid them and have them leave me alone. I didn’t want trouble and part of me was afraid.

What I didn’t realize is that my vehicle dwelling neighbors also wanted to avoid trouble. All I needed was to understand how to navigate this new environment and things would generally be OK.

Here is an example of how my interactions with strangers were when I first started out:

Can I bum a smoke?” Nope.

Do you have any spare change?” Nope.

Passin' through?” Yep. (Big fat lie.)

You have a boyfriend?” Yep. (Really big fat lie.)

Where you from?” Up North. (Vague)

Here’s an example of how things were after I got tired of the some of the same old questions:

Can I bum a smoke?” Dude I don’t smoke!

Do you have any spare change?” Dude, stop. I live like you do.

Passin’ through?” I’m sorry, what was the question?

You have a boyfriend?” Silent head shaking.

Where you from?” That way (pointing finger north).

Here’s how my answers changed after I got more comfortable navigating the culture and found a little more street smarts:

“Can I bum a smoke?” Sure.

This was followed by a big smile and me pulling out the pack of smokes I kept in one of my pockets. I bought the cheapest pack I could find and started giving them away.

It was easier and less stressful than being frustrated every time I got asked. Plus, I noticed that when you gave these people smokes, 98% of the time they not only left you alone but sometimes they would let start letting you know about who was who in regards to all of your vehicle living neighbors. At times, that information came in handy for safety purposes.

Do you have any spare change?Man, I wish I did. You got a place on the lot or are you camping?

At that, they would point to their rig on the lot or confess that they were “camping.” They would in turn ask me if I was on the lot or camping. I would then point to my van. By then I had learned that there was some sort of honor code and part if it was not snitching on each other for sleeping in the parking lot.

By actually having this conversation, I could glean their name, situation, background, start assessing their body motions and other non-verbal communicators.

I would remember their face and where they were parked. It helped me keep an eye on them later to make sure they kept a safe distance for the rest of the evening. If there was ever any trouble, this would help me in assisting the police if things ever came down to that.

Passin' through?Sometimes. Nod and smile. Go about your business.

In a way, even if you’re staying in one location, everyone is “passing through.” You may be just passing through from one parking stall to a different one rather than traveling out of the state but it still counts as “passing through.” This answer makes your vehicle dwelling neighbors feel better about sleeping in the parking spot next to you later on. Why? It's purely psychological. Wouldn't you feel better if you knew the people parking next to you were "passing through?"

You have a boyfriend?Nope. Really not lookin’ for one.

Now ladies, I have to tell you. For me, this was OK at first. Later, it became an issue.

What I learned is that by admitting to not having a boyfriend, some of these men thought I was open and available for unwanted affection.

Later, I learned these men were only hearing “she wants the affection no strings attached.” On this one it is better to say “No” and then end the conversation and keep your distance unless you do have a boyfriend and can say “Yes.”

Outside of that, my best advice is just to avoid the question all together. Pretend you didn’t hear it. Take the conversation in another direction.

If you must answer the question, maybe a better answer would have been to just say, “It’s complicated.” Refuse to discuss it further. Anybody on Facebook understands that right?

Where you from?Oregon by way of Seattle.

At that they would either chit chat a bit more, make a remark about how beautiful it is up there and that would be the end of it. Again, the chit chat allows you to each other assess each other and get a feel for your safety levels around that person.

In all your conversations, you do not have to answer any question you aren’t comfortable with. You don’t even have to talk to others if they talk to you. If you want, you can pretend not to hear them. As a woman living alone in your van you’re going to be an object of intrigue to the majority of your vehicle dwelling neighbors. Just expect it.

Decide ahead of time what you want people knowing and what you don’t want them knowing. Always follow your instincts and keep your eyes open.