Ep 231: The Power of Strangers

Joe Keohane, author of The Power of Strangers, joins us to discuss the many benefits of starting a conversation with a stranger. We talk about why we’re often so afraid to talk to people on the bus or at a coffee shop, and what to say to spark a connection with someone we’ve never met.

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Full show notes

How many strangers do you encounter on a daily basis? Riding public transport, ordering a coffee, hanging out at the bar–these simple tasks require us to chat with people we’ve never met. As naturally social creatures, humans have the potential to make friends with each and every stranger we meet, and would probably be happier if we did! But instead, we pull out our phones, put on our earbuds and try not to make eye contact.

We’re afraid to talk to strangers, but why? And how much better might life be if we took the time to talk to strangers more often?

To find out the answer, we’re talking to Joe Keohane, author of The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World. Joe is a journalist who’s worked at Medium, Esquire, Entrepreneur, and Hemisphere. His work has also been featured in New York Magazine, The Boston Globe, The New Yorker, Wired, and more!

In our interview, we’re talking about why people are so hesitant to talk to strangers, and how we can foster positive conversations with people we’ve just met. Plus, what we can gain from starting up a chat with the guy next to us on the subway or the girl taking our order.

The Truth About “Stranger Danger”

Most of us (and our kids) were taught never to talk to strangers. Our parents and teachers warned us of the dangers of speaking with unknown adults or people we don’t trust. Joe calls this “stranger danger propaganda” and explains that this concept is statically baseless. In fact, 90% of the time, crimes like assault, murder or kidnapping happen at the hands of someone we already know. As long as we’re savvy about it, talking to strangers is typically a lot safer than we realize, Joe says.

We also tend to assume that other people are busy, stressed, or simply don’t want to talk to us. This assumption is also typically wrong, says Joe. In our interview, we discussed several experiments in which researchers encouraged study participants to talk to strangers on the subway or other public places. Most of the time, these initiated interactions were overwhelmingly successful, to the surprise of the participants. And when researchers surveyed them afterwards, most participants said the interaction with a stranger brightened their day or made them actually enjoy a dreaded commute.

In the episode, Joe explains how younger people are often the most afraid of talking to strangers. This is because they’re used to chatting online or through text, where they can control the terms of the conversation. They can choose not to respond, think about what to say, re-read and edit responses before sending. While those functions can be useful for digital communication, they make it a bit harder to communicate in real life. In fact, young people are statistically the loneliest and often feel much more isolated, explains Joe.

Talking to strangers is not only a lot safer than we think, but also has a multitude of benefits. In our interview, Joe and I are discussing all the ways we can benefit from talking to strangers.

The Benefits of Connecting

Despite our typical routine of ignoring each other on the bus or in the grocery store, humans are actually incredibly social creatures, Joe says. We’re inherently much more capable of forming and keeping relationships than other animals, and are much happier when we have a sense of community and belonging with others. Speaking with those who are from different generations, racial groups or identities can be great for us as well, Joe says, as it allows us to broaden our perspectives and understand the complexities of others.

Our evolutionary social mechanisms are shown through research, Joe explains. Many psychologists philosophize that talking with someone you’ve never met can spike oxytocin in the brain-the chemical associated with social bonding and connecting to others. In fact, many studies show that talking with strangers can help us resolve or avoid falling into mental illness, by helping us feel more optimistic and less isolated. 

Talking with strangers can have cognitive benefits as well. In the episode, Joe explains how discussing anything with an unknown person requires our brain to work hard, synthesize new information and reevaluate your perspective on certain subjects. This can be great for our executive function, and allows us to only get better at meeting new people in the future.

Even when we’re aware of all the benefits, talking to a random person can still be pretty challenging. To help, Joe and I are sharing some strategies you can employ to make socializing with strangers a little easier.

Starting the Conversation

If you want to foster communication with a stranger, Joe suggests starting by offering up a piece of information about yourself. This signals to the other person that you’re open to sharing and discussing life, and that they’re safe to do the same. However, Joe advises not to “dump” too much on the other person and scare them away. Keeping it light and positive at first can be helpful, until the conversation develops further. To navigate this, Joe emphasizes the importance of listening and paying attention to the other person’s energy.

Listening isn’t always as easy as we think, Joe explains. When we’re in a conversation with someone we’re just getting to know, we often wait for them to mention something we know about or can chime in on, and then jump in to give our two cents. Instead of waiting to talk about ourselves. Joe recommends we try to be curious and resist our urge to interject. It can feel awkward at first, but once we start listening more actively, it simply becomes second nature, Joe explains. In the episode, we talk about various ways we can use body language to signal that we’re actually listening.

When we’re talking to someone we’ve never met, we typically fall into predictable scripts–asking how they are, what they do, or where they’re from. And while these can sometimes be good ways to get to know one another, they also tend to cut conversations short by being too easy to answer. Joe suggests that we break the script and ask something unpredictable instead! In the episode, he shares a method he often uses, where he responds to “how are you?” with a numerical digit and prompts the stranger to do the same.

In The Episode…

This week’s episode will convince you to start a conversation with the next stranger you meet! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
  • Why we often expect strangers to be boring
  • How traditional societies practiced greeting strangers
  • Why those with higher socioeconomic status are lonelier
  • How you can find small pockets of socialization in daily life
If you enjoyed this week’s episode, check out Joe’s website, joekeohane.net. Don’t forget to share and subscribe! We’ll see you next week.

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Joe Keohane
Joe Keohane
Coauthor of "The Lemon: A Novel." Author of "The Power of Strangers." Writer/editor: @Esquire @Medium, @Entrepreneur @Wired @NewYorker, etc. WGA member.
Ep 231: The Power of Strangers
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