I wanted to understand why strange men send me messages online, so I started to say “hi” back

 Their messages are rarely threatening, strange, or sexually forward – they’re simply there.

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When I was 15 and living in a small town in North Yorkshire, I had a whirlwind romance with a man who declared himself to be “the snooker champion of Muscat”, the capital city of Oman. At least, that’s how he would tell the story. In reality, the stranger added me on Facebook, exchanged a few pleasantries, boasted about his prowess with a cue and asked me to be his wife.

This isn’t an unusual occurrence for any woman on the internet – social media messages from male strangers are so common that many of us don’t think twice about them. Every day, one or two men slide into my Twitter inbox for a chat. I call them the Hi Guys, because that’s often all they’ll say. On 6 September, I got one “hallo” and one “hey”. Two days before, I got one “hi” and one “hello nice to meet you here”. The end of August was especially lucrative. Over the span of a few days, different men approached with different openers: one “hello”, two “hello dear”s, a “hei” and a single “bonjour”.

Naturally, not all these men are snooker champions in need of a wife. They are a diverse array of people from all across the world – grey-haired American men who tweet about fearing God, young Indian men sharing inspirational memes, and one Italian boy who looks to be about 12 years old. Their messages are rarely threatening, strange, or sexually forward – they’re simply there.

Most women don’t do anything about the Hi Guys because they’re not especially bothersome. Although some men do become abusive and angry if they don’t receive a reply, most simply send a single “Hello” and then give up. The persistent ones are often more amusing than intimidating. Social media star Ines Helene recently showed her 110,000 Twitter followers a screenshot of the multiple messages a man had sent to her inbox. The stranger said “hey” to her almost every day for a week in August, before declaring: “One day I will die and you’ll regret not having replied to me.”

Most of these men aren’t that persistent because it seems their approach is more scattergun: focusing not on one woman, but instead on sending out greetings to as many women as possible. But does this actually work, and do these men really hope to strike up a relationship this way? There’s only one way to find out what Hi Guys really want – and that’s to say “hi” back.

Over a weekend in September, I trawled through my Twitter inbox and replied to my messages from strangers. After exchanging “how do you dos”, I asked a simple, polite question: “May I ask why you messaged me?”

Two separate men – one from America and one from Syria – had exactly the same story. “I was searching for a friend when I came across your profile,” they both told me independently. Is there some kind of special seminar, or a free online course where men can get ready-made excuses for approaching women? It’s not unlikely, although I can’t find evidence of it when I search their chosen phrase online. Still, both men are at least apologetic, hoping I’m not offended by their intrusion into my inbox.

Another two men cut straight to the chase by asking if I’m single or married – there’s not much to learn here. But some sincerely seem to want friendship, or to share stories about the world. When asked why he messaged me, a man in France simply says “to make knowledge” (though he later sends a picture of himself on a motorbike, and it is unclear how this adds to his mission). A young man in Kenya is a particularly enjoyable conversationalist who is also seeking “knowledge”.

“I thought sharing ideas wasn’t a rather bad idea,” he writes. He asks me questions about how people train to be writers, and tells me about his experiences at college, before saying “it would be nice if there is anything you may want to know about Kenya”. I ask about the weather and the food; he sends a picture of roast meat and potatoes (remarkably, that’s not a euphemism), and tells me it is sunny as he makes his way to town. The exchange is somewhat uplifting – it reminds me of the old promises of the internet, that you could talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything.

In 2018, the British journalist Hussein Kesvani set out to find out why south Asian strangers slid into his DMs with alarming regularity. His story showed that receiving random messages from strange men isn’t as gendered as we often assume. By interviewing a 21-year-old from Haryana, India, who sent him a simple “hello”, Kesvani shed light on the phenomenon.

“I send messages to many people every day in England, America and Canada. No one responds. Or some respond with rude things, like saying, ‘Fuck off!’” the man told Kesvani, author of Follow Me, Akhi: The Online World of British Muslims. The man explained that he hoped to move to America or England and wanted to speak to natives about whether life was really “like the films”. Kesvani and the man spoke over the video-messaging service Skype. “I do not want to stay here. I want to see the world,” the man said. “By [talking] to you, I’m already doing that.”

Naturally, it’s naive to assume that every – or even most – of the men in my inbox are seeking a human connection unlimited by geographical boundaries (“I’m truly sorry if am intruding into your privacy pretty,” writes one man with a mixed grasp of socially acceptable behaviours, and indeed grammar). Still, sometimes a “hi” is just a “hi” – an opportunity to learn more about someone else somewhere else. I am not married to the snooker champion of Muscat, Oman, but a decade ago I spoke to him, and  discovered that he exists. That’s something – something inexplicable and small, just like an unsolicited “hi” itself. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos