Joe Keohane is a veteran journalist, having covered a myriad of topics and held top editor positions for Medium, Esquire, and Hemispheres. His writing has appeared in Esquire, New York Magazine, the Boston Globe, The New Yorker, Wired, the New Republic, and several textbooks. In his new book, he filters through thousands of years of psychology, anthropology, politics, city planning, and beyond to give us an in-depth understanding of why we don’t talk to strangers, why we should, and how key strangers have been to the growth of civilization in the first place.
Below, Joe shares 5 key insights from his new book, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World (available now from Amazon). Listen to the audio version—read by Joe himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Talking to strangers is good for us.
I want to start by introducing you to a friend I met. Her name is Nic, and she’s a nurse in Las Vegas. She had a really hard time as a kid—her parents had a lot of problems, and kids at school were cruel to her. It warped her, understandably. She told me, “I thought I was supposed to be afraid of everything.”
But at a certain point, in her teen years, Nic went against this instinct and started talking to strangers. She found, to her shock, that people were generally kind, receptive, and interested in her. She found that it made feel less lonely, happier, and more hopeful—and it was a lot of fun. She’s now been doing this for decades, and she credits it for giving her the good life she has today.
As it turns out, scientists are finding that this effect isn’t unique to Nic. In a series of studies over the last few years—in which people were asked to chat up strangers on buses and subways, in waiting rooms, or in coffee shops—psychologists have found, again and again, that the simple act of chatting with a stranger can make us feel happier and healthier, less lonely, and more connected to the places where we live. One psychologist even found that talking to strangers boosts our cognitive function, making us, in effect, smarter. It’s that powerful. Nic told me, “Never underestimate the power of even the most minute positive connection.”
“The simple act of chatting with a stranger can make us feel happier and healthier, less lonely, and more connected to the places where we live.”
2. We’re not sure strangers are people.
So if talking to strangers is so good for us, why don’t we do it more? There are a lot of possible answers, ranging from a fear that it will go badly, to more insidious issues of class or race. But underpinning a lot of the fears we have about talking to strangers boils down to this: We don’t talk to strangers because we’re not entirely convinced that they are human. Or at least, we don’t think they’re as human as we are.
The psychologist Nicholas Epley, who has extensively studied interactions with strangers, came up with what he calls “the lesser minds problem.” Basically, it goes like this: Because we can’t see what’s going on in the head of a stranger, we have a tendency to assume that there’s just not much going on in there. Studies have backed this up. We chronically underestimate strangers’ intelligence, willpower, and ability to feel emotions like pride, embarrassment, and shame. This applies to all strangers, but it can become a lot more severe in times of strife, or when leaders push us to dehumanize members of other groups.
Pretty dark, right? But there’s a curious upside to the lesser minds problem. We actually expect very little from a conversation with a stranger. As a result, it’s easier to initiate, and we’re frequently delighted to discover that the creature standing before us is, in fact, a full human with a complex mind, a rich life, a unique perspective, and much to offer.
3. Break the script.
Back in 2019, as part of an effort to get really good at talking to strangers, I signed up for an unusual class. It was taught by a young woman named Georgie Nightingall. Georgie is a communications expert, and she has a lot of proven, scientifically backed tips on how to talk to strangers. My favorite is called “breaking the script.”
“Thanks to hospitality, social networks exploded, and humans suddenly traveled farther than ever before.”
So what’s a script? Well, when we interact with people, we often use something called a script. This is a way to acknowledge the other person without expending any real time or effort. Say I go to the store—the cashier says, “How ya doing?” And I say, “Good, how are you?” and he says, “Fine, thanks.” It goes no further. That’s not a conversation; that’s a script.
Georgie’s idea is to break this script by responding to a scripted question with a specific, and sincere, answer. The cashier says, “How ya doing?” And Georgie says, “I’d say I’m a seven out of ten. How about you?” Now, the cashier is going to be a little thrown. He didn’t expect this, but humans tend to follow one another’s lead in conversation, so when he answers, he’ll likely do it numerically. “I’m an eight,” he says. And Georgie will say, “What will it take to get you to a nine?”
And like that, a little connection has been made. They’re sharing a bit of what it’s like to be them, a conversation has begun, and they are on their way to reaping the benefits of talking to strangers.
4. Talking to strangers is the cornerstone of human civilization.
About 12,000 years ago, when humans shifted to farming, a lot of men (previously the hunters) suddenly found themselves with little to do. According to the British archeologist Martin Jones, who studies ancient DNA, these idle men set out into the wilderness to find their place. They became wanderers—strangers.
Prior to agriculture, they wouldn’t have made it very far, but the new presence of settlements came to function like a network of way stations. Let me paint you a picture: A strange man approaches a settlement. He is putting himself in danger by doing this, but he needs food and shelter. When the people in the settlement see him, they’re wary. He might be a threat, but at the same time, he might know something useful, or interesting. Or he might be a potential mate, or good company, or just a way to break up the monotony.
“Never underestimate the power of even the most minute positive connection.”
So, these strangers and these settlers had to devise a way to reconcile threat and opportunity. They did it through what we now know as hospitality. The settlers would take the stranger in and offer him food and shelter, making him indebted to them, while also talking to him, giving him a chance to demonstrate that he was not dangerous, that he was not of a lesser mind, but that he had something to offer. Once both sides felt comfortable, a relationship could form.
In short order, thanks to hospitality, social networks exploded, and humans suddenly traveled farther than ever before. This sort of hospitality became, according to Martin Jones, nothing less than the “cornerstone of civilization.”
5. Friction makes us social.
Why are some places friendly to strangers, while others are cold? At first, I assumed that really safe, well-run countries would be the friendliest. After all, if strangers don’t pose a threat, then you’re probably more likely to talk to them. As it turns out, the opposite is often true.
While writing my book, I met a political scientist named Yuna Blajer de la Garza. She contrasted life in Norway with life in her native Mexico. “Norwegians don’t really have to rely on people being trustworthy because the state functions so smoothly,” she told me. “You end up in a situation in which you simply do not need others to go about your day. [But in Mexico,] you need to interact with others for everyday exchanges—you need to address them, to ask for help, for directions.” In that way, friction forces people to be friendly.
You can see this happen in other ways too. Research into a phenomenon called “smiling cultures” has found that people in places that have a long history of immigration tend to be friendlier, more emotionally expressive, and more attuned to one another than people in homogeneous societies. That’s because for centuries, people in these cultures could not assume that the stranger before them could speak the local language, or understand cultural shorthand. They had to devise a way to communicate that they were friendly, and they did so by smiling more, laughing more, and generally being more animated. For these cultures—and I would argue, for our own—talking to strangers isn’t just a way to live, but a way to survive.
To listen to the audio version read by Joe Keohane, download the Next Big Idea App today: