Editors’ note: In a January Think Tank article, Curtis Kelly wrote about how Nigel McQuitty gloried in the wonders of talking to strangers again once pandemic lockdowns ended. Curtis responded that talking to strangers is a skill his students desperately need. Shortly after, Nigel sent Curtis a book, The Power of Strangers, by Joe Keohane. This amazing book explains how communicating with strangers can greatly improve our lives, and those of our learners. Read this book! But before that, read Joe’s answers to some questions we sent him:
Where most of us teach, talking to strangers is considered something dangerous or weird. What do you think about this perspective and what are the advantages of talking to strangers?
So, there are definitely cultural differences, both between countries, and even between places within the same country, when it comes to talking to strangers, and I actually get into the research on cultural evolution in the book. But generally speaking, psychologists over the last 15 years or so have found that when people talk to strangers—even a passing interaction—they report feeling happier, more trusting, more optimistic, less lonely, and more connected to the places where they live. At a time of epidemic levels of loneliness, this is a very powerful finding.
There is also research showing that when people have meaningful interactions with members of other groups, it can alleviate prejudice and political polarization. This is not easy—in the book I talk to a scientist who introduces strange chimps to one another. Chimps are deeply xenophobic. I spent time with a group that teaches Americans on both sides of the partisan divide to speak to one another. It was not wholly dissimilar from the chimp process…
You mention dozens of studies in your book. Could you tell us about one or two that really stood out for you?
The leading researchers on this are Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder in the US, and Gillian Sandstrom in the UK. Epley and Schroeder conducted a series of experiments where commuters in Chicago and London were asked to speak to strangers on mass transit. These people were horrified by the prospect of doing this, as there are strong social norms against talking to strangers on the subway. But when they tried it, they found people were surprisingly receptive and interesting. All had feared they’d be rejected, but none were. And everyone came away saying they really enjoyed it, made friends, and felt better.
Gillian Sandstrom has gotten similar results in experiments in Canada and England. But one interesting finding of hers pertains to what keeps people from talking to strangers. Obviously social norms are a big deterrent. If people feel this is “not done here,” they’ll be very uncomfortable doing it. But Gillian found that a big impediment is a fear that we just won’t be any good at it. That we won’t know what to say, we won’t be interesting enough, and we won’t know how to end the conversation once it starts. Fortunately, she found that those worries are mostly unwarranted We are a social species. In a way, we’re built for striking up these sorts of connections.
Do you have any suggestions about things we might do in language classes to make our learners, generally shy, more able and willing to talk to strangers?
Just make them do it! I talked to a lot of professors who worked talking to strangers into their curricula, having kids go out and strike up conversations on campus or in the community, or even engage in “free listening,” where you stand out on the street and simply offer to listen. It sounds crazy, but it has a profound effect on people. One student told his professor: “I feel like I learned to have a conversation again.” Others said they felt less alone, knowing that other people struggle just like they do. It’s great for enhancing empathy and a sense of belonging, at a time when both are in short supply.
The hard part is deciding who to talk to and how, especially how to begin. Give us some advice.
Sure, just follow your curiosity. If someone is doing something interesting, or has something interesting, or even if you’ve noticed something interesting and want to share, go for it. Be respectful; be curious; don’t be a creep. People tend to be wary at first, but generally warm up and are frequently quite wonderful. I also have one great technique I got from a woman named Georgie Nightingall in London. She’s a communications expert and a bit of a genius. When you attempt to talk to someone in public, in a place where people generally don’t, you can use a “pre-frame.” So instead of saying, “I like your bag, where did you get it?” You say, “Look, I know we’re not supposed to talk to people on the subway, but can I just say, I like your bag.” This shows them you’re not chaotic, you’re not a threat, you know you’re violating a social norm.
Oh, and one more Georgie tip. When someone asks you how you’re doing—in a store, say—you usually say “fine, how are you?” This is a big missed opportunity. Georgie suggests giving a numerical answer. “I’d say I’m a 7 out of 10. How are you?” This is a like a magic trick. People usually give a numerical answer back, and all of a sudden you’re talking.
Once you start talking, your job is to listen. People stress out about not having something interesting to say, but you really don’t have to say much at all. You have to listen, and ask open ended questions, and just let the person go where they want. It’s uncomfortable to do this at first, but you get the best conversations this way.
Do you have any other rules of thumb about talking to strangers (such as looking for older people, as they are usually willing.)
Yeah, be aware of yourself. As a man, I’m pretty careful about talking to young women, because they’re justifiably wary, and because they tend to attract a lot of unwanted male attention. That’s not to say I don’t talk to young women sometimes, just that I’m very aware of myself and aware of their reactions. Beyond that, older people are great because they’re usually not in a hurry. Public places are great. Parks, bars, libraries, places with other people around, so the person you’re talking to feels safe. This is a generalization, but I find working class people, at least in the West, are more socially adept than affluent people. (There’s some research backing that up too.)
In our age of growing smartphone isolation, do you think this ability might be a particular asset (work skill) in the future?
I hope so! Digital communication will continue to be critical, but humans require in-person social contact in order to remain healthy. Digital communication can be great, but it’s a low-fi version of the real thing. And it’s probably no coincidence that the loneliest demographic—18-22-year-olds—is the one that does most of its communicating via digital platforms.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Talking to strangers is good for you, and good for society. It’s easier than you think. And it’s tremendously reassuring. When I started this project, I had a pretty dismal view of humanity—which made sense, because my perception was increasingly built on what I was served by the media and social media. But talking to as many people as I could, in person, out in public, and going through so much of this research, has done the impossible: It’s given me hope in a pretty dark time. Give it a shot.
Joe Keohane is a veteran journalist who has held high-level editing positions at Medium, Esquire, Entrepreneur, and Hemispheres. His writing—on everything from politics, to travel, to social science, business, and technology—has appeared in New York magazine, The Boston Globe, The New Yorker, Wired, Boston magazine, The New Republic, and several textbooks. An avid parallel parker and occasional working musician, he also won a prestigious Screenwriters Colony fellowship in 2017 for a comedy television pilot that remains, sadly, unproduced.
Interviewer Curtis Kelly rides trains to make friends with grandmas, salarymen, mothers and their babies.