People can go to great lengths to avoid speaking with each other. On the train, in a museum, or waiting in line at the grocery store, we often retreat inward, keeping our faces buried in books or screens. As result, many people tend to drift through their solitary days unaware of the benefits that random — and even fleeting — interactions with strangers can bring.
Scepticism and even outright fear of strangers is deeply entrenched in pop culture and the broader zeitgeist, as our collective disdain for our neighbours has been crystallised in classic films such as Strangers on a Train and in the broader “stranger danger” panic of the 1980s, which still endures to some degree.
The writer Joe Keohane sought to answer the question of why we’re so averse to talking with strangers in his new book, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World. It’s partly a treatise on the intense social anxiety that strangers evoke, and the mountain of psychological evidence which proves that inclination is horribly misguided. But it also serves as a field guide to anyone looking to branch out and welcome the myriad benefits of opening up to the people all around you — an endeavour that could serve us greatly in fractious times.
Why don’t we like talking to strangers?
Keohane says that reasons behind our refusal to engage with strangers are numerous, ranging from population density and the advent of smartphones, to “social messaging about how dangerous strangers are, to more insidious issues of gender, race, and class.”
So much of it, he tells Lifehacker, comes down to preconceptions we have of other people, and how often people believe others won’t respond positively to their attempts to engage. “Researchers have found that people worry that they won’t know what to say, or they’ll be rejected, or they’ll look stupid or crazy, and that they won’t know how to end the conversation,” he says.
That mentality has been shaped by decades of social conditioning. To be sure, history has proven that people will often erect figurative walls between themselves and others, and the idea of “otherness” has been a toxic motivator championed by some world leaders to drive people apart.
The 1980s in particular were a time when the idea of “stranger danger” became pervasive. “It was a moral panic,” Keohane says. “After a few horrifying incidents involving the abduction and murder of children, the U.S. launched into what was effectively a crusade against strangers. That’s when the term ‘stranger danger’ entered the lexicon.”
But if anything, humans thrive when social barriers are broken down. Keohane’s book references a glut of recent scholarship indicating that random social interaction between strangers almost always goes better than participants expect. “It comes pretty naturally to them,” he says. “The conversations last longer, people are more interested in them than they anticipated, and they’re more interested in the strangers” than they thought they’d be.
Why you should talk to strangers
Talking to strangers is a balm for the isolated soul, but because of smartphones (and many other factors) we do it far less than ever. “With the dawn of digital technology,” Keohane says, “we socialise far less in person, and at the same time, we’ve seen rates of mental illness and loneliness skyrocket.”
The book cites numerous studies that demonstrate the benefits of talking to strangers, which Keohane synthesizes: “People who seek out these conversations report coming away feeling happier, more connected, more trusting, less lonely…they also feel an enhanced sense of well-being, belonging, and optimism.”
It isn’t entirely obvious to researchers why people report feeling so great after connecting with strangers — even after benign conversations — but Keohane suggests it might have something to do with the release of oxytocin. Either way, an undeniable truth lies in the data: people often just feel good after they talk to strangers. For Keohane, he reports a sense of relief that washes over him after talking to someone he doesn’t know, because he’s “discovering that people aren’t as horrible as we’ve been led to believe.”
How to talk to strangers
One key isn’t to step too far out of your comfort zone. Keohane recommends to “start with what feels physically safe to you.” He acknowledges that his place as a straight white guy affords him a certain privilege that won’t hold true for many other people, so definitely go at your own pace (and of course, be aware that the pandemic is still ongoing).
For one thing, there are groups — such as Footpath Talk, or Living Room Conversations, or Conversations New York — that anyone can join in an effort to practice. But for anyone just venturing outside their home, Keohane advises going off the traditional conversational script. Eye-contact is key; as is asking open-ended questions that start with “how” or “why.” Of course, always be aware of social cues — this isn’t a licence to pester anyone.
The author advises:
Don’t talk about yourself too much. Instead, take your hands off the wheel. Let them talk, and try to understand what they’re saying, where they’re coming from, what motivates them. Avoid being judgmental, dismissive or contemptuous…And just let the conversation go where it wants to go.
Letting go of your anxieties and how you think a conversation will go will ultimately be very freeing. “In my experience,” Keohane says. Talking to strangers “will always surprise you.”
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