There are things we say when we catch the eye of a stranger or a neighbor walking by. We say, "Hello, how are you? It's a beautiful day. How do you feel?" These sound kind of meaningless, right? And, in some ways, they are. They have no semantic meaning. It doesn't matter how you are or what the day is like. They have something else. They have social meaning. What we mean when we say those things is: I see you there.
I'm obsessed with talking to strangers. I make eye contact, say hello, I offer help, I listen. I get all kinds of stories. About seven years ago, I started documenting my experiences to try to figure out why. What I found was that something really beautiful was going on. This is almost poetic. These were really profound experiences. They were unexpected pleasures. They were genuine emotional connections. They were liberating moments.
So one day, I was standing on a corner waiting for the light to change, which, I'm a New Yorker, so that means I was actually standing in the street on the storm drain, as if that could get me across faster. And there's an old man standing next to me. So he's wearing, like, a long overcoat and sort of an old-man hat, and he looked like somebody from a movie. And he says to me, "Don't stand there. You might disappear." So this is absurd, right? But I did what he said. I stepped back onto the sidewalk. And he smiled, and he said, "Good. You never know. I might have turned around, and zoop, you're gone."
This was weird, and also really wonderful. He was so warm, and he was so happy that he'd saved me. We had this little bond. For a minute, I felt like my existence as a person had been noticed, and I was worth saving. The really sad thing is, in many parts of the world, we're raised to believe that strangers are dangerous by default, that we can't trust them, that they might hurt us. But most strangers aren't dangerous. We're uneasy around them because we have no context. We don't know what their intentions are. So instead of using our perceptions and making choices, we rely on this category of "stranger."
I have a four-year-old. When I say hello to people on the street, she asks me why. She says, "Do we know them?"
I say, "No, they're our neighbor."
"Are they our friend?"
"No, it's just good to be friendly."
I think twice every time I say that to her, because I mean it, but as a woman, particularly, I know that not every stranger on the street has the best intentions. It is good to be friendly, and it's good to learn when not to be, but none of that means we have to be afraid.
There are two huge benefits to using our senses instead of our fears. The first one is that it liberates us. When you think about it, using perception instead of categories is much easier said than done. Categories are something our brains use. When it comes to people, it's sort of a shortcut for learning about them. We see male, female, young, old, black, brown, white, stranger, friend, and we use the information in that box. It's quick, it's easy and it's a road to bias. And it means we're not thinking about people as individuals. I know an American researcher who travels frequently in Central Asia and Africa, alone. She's entering into towns and cities as a complete stranger. She has no bonds, no connections. She's a foreigner. Her survival strategy is this: get one stranger to see you as a real, individual person. If you can do that, it'll help other people see you that way, too.
The second benefit of using our senses has to do with intimacy. I know it sounds a little counterintuitive, intimacy and strangers, but these quick interactions can lead to a feeling that sociologists call "fleeting intimacy." So, it's a brief experience that has emotional resonance and meaning. It's the good feeling I got from being saved from the death trap of the storm drain by the old man, or how I feel like part of a community when I talk to somebody on my train on the way to work.
Sometimes it goes further. Researchers have found that people often feel more comfortable being honest and open about their inner selves with strangers than they do with their friends and their families — that they often feel more understood by strangers. This gets reported in the media with great lament. "Strangers communicate better than spouses!" It's a good headline, right? I think it entirely misses the point. The important thing about these studies is just how significant these interactions can be; how this special form of closeness gives us something we need as much as we need our friends and our families.
So how is it possible that we communicate so well with strangers? There are two reasons. The first one is that it's a quick interaction. It has no consequences. It's easy to be honest with someone you're never going to see again, right? That makes sense. The second reason is where it gets more interesting. We have a bias when it comes to people we're close to. We expect them to understand us. We assume they do, and we expect them to read our minds. So imagine you're at a party, and you can't believe that your friend or your spouse isn't picking up on it that you want to leave early. And you're thinking, "I gave you the look."
With a stranger, we have to start from scratch. We tell the whole story, we explain who the people are, how we feel about them; we spell out all the inside jokes. And guess what? Sometimes they do understand us a little better.
OK. So now that we know that talking to strangers matters, how does it work? There are unwritten rules we tend to follow. The rules are very different depending on what country you're in, what culture you're in. In most parts of the US, the baseline expectation in public is that we maintain a balance between civility and privacy. This is known as civil inattention. So, imagine two people are walking towards each other on the street. They'll glance at each other from a distance. That's the civility, the acknowledgment. And then as they get closer, they'll look away, to give each other some space.
In other cultures, people go to extraordinary lengths not to interact at all. People from Denmark tell me that many Danes are so averse to talking to strangers, that they would rather miss their stop on the bus than say "excuse me" to someone that they need to get around. Instead, there's this elaborate shuffling of bags and using your body to say that you need to get past, instead of using two words.
In Egypt, I'm told, it's rude to ignore a stranger, and there's a remarkable culture of hospitality. Strangers might ask each other for a sip of water. Or, if you ask someone for directions, they're very likely to invite you home for coffee. We see these unwritten rules most clearly when they're broken, or when you're in a new place and you're trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.
Sometimes breaking the rules a little bit is where the action is. In case it's not clear, I really want you to do this. OK? So here's how it's going to go. Find somebody who is making eye contact. That's a good signal. The first thing is a simple smile. If you're passing somebody on the street or in the hallway here, smile. See what happens.
Another is triangulation. There's you, there's a stranger, there's some third thing that you both might see and comment on, like a piece of public art or somebody preaching in the street or somebody wearing funny clothes. Give it a try. Make a comment about that third thing, and see if starts a conversation.
Another is what I call noticing. This is usually giving a compliment. I'm a big fan of noticing people's shoes. I'm actually not wearing fabulous shoes right now, but shoes are fabulous in general. And they're pretty neutral as far as giving compliments goes. People always want to tell you things about their awesome shoes.
You may have already experienced the dogs and babies principle. It can be awkward to talk to someone on the street; you don't know how they're going to respond. But you can always talk to their dog or their baby. The dog or the baby is a social conduit to the person, and you can tell by how they respond whether they're open to talking more.
The last one I want to challenge you to is disclosure. This is a very vulnerable thing to do, and it can be very rewarding. So next time you're talking to a stranger and you feel comfortable, tell them something true about yourself, something really personal. You might have that experience I talked about of feeling understood.
Sometimes in conversation, it comes up, people ask me, "What does your dad do?" or, "Where does he live?" And sometimes I tell them the whole truth, which is that he died when I was a kid. Always in those moments, they share their own experiences of loss. We tend to meet disclosure with disclosure, even with strangers.
So, here it is. When you talk to strangers, you're making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life and theirs. You're making unexpected connections. If you don't talk to strangers, you're missing out on all of that. We spend a lot of time teaching our children about strangers. What would happen if we spent more time teaching ourselves? We could reject all the ideas that make us so suspicious of each other. We could make a space for change.