Look around a grocery store, airport lobby, or subway car, and you’ll see a bunch of people who are physically together but distinctly separate, each off in their own world, often looking at their phones. In public environments like these, we rarely think to talk to others, and hope no one talks to us.
But my guest today says that initiating these kinds of interactions will not only be more edifying and enjoyable than we think, but holds a key to the sustaining of civilization. His name is Joe Keohane, and he’s the author of The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World. Joe and I spend the first part of our conversation taking a high-level look at how talking with strangers makes individuals happier and society more connected, and why we so strenuously avoid these interactions, even though they almost invariably go better than we anticipate. We discuss how interacting with strangers helped expand human civilization, the codes that ancient cultures developed on how to treat strangers, and a theory as to why people are more social in places like Brazil than in Nordic countries. From there we turn to the more practical side of things and discuss how to develop or redevelop your ability to talk to strangers. Joe shares how to ask people how they’re doing in a way that will get a real response and a better question to ask people than what they do for a living. We also talk about how to change your perspective on small talk, and move it as quickly as possible into meatier territory. We end our conversation with how talking to strangers can overcome division and polarization in society, and how it’s changed Joe’s own life.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Gillian Sandstrom
- Nicholas Epley
- Juliana Schroeder
- Douglas Fry
- Georgie Nightingall
- AoM Podcast #502: Why You Should Talk to Strangers With Gillian Sandstrom
- AoM Podcast #77: Mindwise With Juliana Schroeder
- AoM Podcast #406: Why You Need to Embrace Small Talk
- AoM Article: How to Make Small Talk
- AoM Article: How to Make Small Talk With Strangers — My 21-Day Experiment
Connect With Joe Keohane
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Read the Transcript!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, look around a grocery store, airport lobby, or subway car, you’ll see a bunch of people who are physically together but distinctly separate, each off in their own world, often looking at their phones. In public environments like these, we rarely think to talk to others, hope no one talks to us. But my guest today says that initiating these kind of interactions will not only be more edifying and enjoyable than we think, it holds the key to sustaining this civilization. His name is Joe Keohane and he’s the author of The Power of Strangers: The benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World. Joe and I spend the first part of our conversation taking a high level look at how talking with strangers makes individuals happier in society, more connected, and why we so strenuously avoid these interactions even though they almost invariably go better than we anticipated.
We discuss how interacting with strangers helped expand human civilization, the codes the ancient cultures developed on how to treat strangers, and a theory as to why people are more social in places like Brazil than in Nordic countries. From there, we turn to the more practical side of things and discuss how to develop or redevelop your ability to talk to strangers. Joe shares how to ask people how they’re doing in a way that’ll get the real response, and a better question to ask people than what they do for a living. We also talk about how to change your perspective on small talk and move it as quickly as possible into meatier territory. And we end our conversation with how talking to strangers can overcome division and polarization in society, and how it’s changed Joe’s own life. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/strangers.
Alright, Joe Keohane, welcome to the show.
Joe Keohane: Thanks so much, Brett. I’m happy to be here.
Brett McKay: So you got a new book out called The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, and it’s all about talking to strangers. I’m curious what kick-started this, and this book is really in-depth, you go into the psychology, the anthropology, the sociology of talking to strangers. What kick-started this journey?
Joe Keohane: Yeah, I definitely ended up going down a series of rabbit holes for this one. So basically, I was raised by people who talk to strangers a lot. I grew up in Boston, my parents are super chatty. I grew up watching them… Watching the benefits of this to their lives, like watching them just having more fun and making more friends and that sort of thing. So it was never weird to me in a way that it’s weird to a lot of people, I think. But I realized at a certain point that I had kind of stopped doing it. I was never as good at it as they were, like they’re relentless, they’ll lean across the table in a crowded restaurant and start talking to people and somehow make it work. It’s amazing, like how deft they are at this stuff, they’re just very social people. And I was always pretty good about it, I would talk to people in bars, I would talk to people in coffee shops and stuff like that; on the subway sometimes, which I know is a big violation of a long-standing social rule. But I realized one day as I was going into a CVS that I kept choosing the self-checkout line, and then I realized that I had just been kind of avoiding talking to strangers.
I’d go to a bar and I wouldn’t talk to anybody, and stare at my phone. I was like… Everything was automated to the extent possible. I would use my phone to accomplish everything that I used to have to talk to strangers in order to do, like asking for directions and stuff like that. So for me I started wondering what changed, ’cause I certainly didn’t make a decision to stop doing this. In my past, I had had good experiences talking to people oftentimes it would be hilarious, it would be poignant, it would be interesting, it would be a good diversion. So why did I stop? And for me, the reason was two-fold. Number one, I had a young kid and I had a demanding job, so I was tired, I was stretched thin, I was stressed out, and so the prospect of just mustering the attentional resources to talk to someone, which can be significant, they just weren’t there. I was just burnt out. So I would go to a bar, on the rare occasion that I would go to a bar, and I would just sit there quietly. But I would stare at Twitter or something like that, then I would come away feeling sort of bad about myself and about humanity, as one does after mainlining Twitter for a while.
So that was a big part of it. And then the other part for me was just the phone. When you have a smartphone and you’re of a certain position, you really don’t have to ever talk to anyone again. That’s what it comes down to. So anything that you need to do, from ordering pizza to asking for directions for stuff like that, even just for entertainment and company, if you’re in a public place, you never have to do any of that anymore. And I felt that I had lost something. I felt that my life was a little less rich and a little less surprising as a result of it. So after I asked questions about myself, I started asking bigger questions about, why don’t other people talk to strangers, what are the things that keep us from doing it, and what are some of the benefits that can come of choosing to live life this way.
Brett McKay: And I’m sure everyone listening to this podcast has experienced that same sort of thing. If given the choice between looking at their phone and talking to a stranger, most people are going to look at their phone. We’re not gonna talk to a stranger.
Joe Keohane: Right. It’s easier. It’s like the human wiring basically goes toward whatever is more efficient, whatever is easier. The question is, is it good for you? It might be easier, but do you feel good after you do it, do you feel more connected, do you feel healthy? That sort of thing.
Brett McKay: And you start off the book highlighting research that shows that talking to strangers is good for us. I think oftentimes we think, oh, yeah, it’s not gonna be enjoyable, it’s gonna be awkward. But there’s a lot of research showing that once you talk to a stranger, you actually feel great about the experience.
Joe Keohane: Yeah, yeah, for sure. It’s interesting, ’cause strangers have been a part of the lives of humans for quite some time now, right, but only in the last 15 years or so have psychologists started to study what happens; what happens when we do talk to strangers and what might keep us from doing it. And the consensus so far, and this has been replicated in studies from Toronto to Turkey, involving men, women, people of various ethnicities, genders, races, nationalities, is that even after a relatively passing interaction with a stranger, so like a nice little chat with the kid at Starbucks or something, makes people feel happier. It makes them feel more connected to the place that they live, it makes them feel more optimistic about people, it makes them feel less lonely, which is really important at a time of epidemic loneliness, and that was something that existed before Covid, so that is obviously worse now. Makes them feel more trusting. Done in a certain context and with a certain purpose it can alleviate partisanship, it can alleviate prejudice, things like that. It really is remarkably powerful. And I stress that that can be a pleasant little interaction, and it can range all the way to one of those times when you just end up talking to someone on a plane and it’s a pretty meaningful conversation. I think we’ve all had those from time to time too.
Brett McKay: Yeah. We’ve had one of the researchers, Gillian Sandstrom, on the podcast…
Joe Keohane: Oh yeah.
Brett McKay: Talking about her research.
Joe Keohane: I love Gillian, she’s the best.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And her whole thing was like she noticed she wasn’t talking to the hot dog stand person anymore, and so she… Why is that? And what happens when I start talking to people? And what was interesting too, the research shows that, like I said, most people, they think they’re gonna hate it. If you ask them before, okay, you’re gonna go talk to a stranger, how do you think it’s gonna go? And they’re like, oh, that sounds terrible.
Joe Keohane: Right. They think it’s gonna be a disaster. Right. Yeah, yeah.
Brett McKay: Right. But then it goes swimmingly. It’s like, wow, that was fantastic.
Joe Keohane: Right, yeah, we’ve definitely been poisoned against it to a certain degree. You know, Gillian’s done a lot of good work on the pessimism that people feel. And other psychologists, like Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago and Juliana Schroeder who was his student for a while who’s now in California, they were interested in that too. They were on the subway in Chicago and they were wondering why the subway was filled with people, members of a hyper-social species, right, like we’re a successful species because we’re so good at being social, and no one would talk to each other. So they wanted to get into that too. But, for sure, people worry that they’re not gonna know how to do it, that they’re gonna suck at it, they’re gonna sound ridiculous, they’re gonna be rejected. If they do start the conversation, they’re gonna run out of things to say, that people are gonna think they’re boring. There are so many reasons why people are pessimistic about these interactions. And you can go deeper too, you can look at generations of Stranger Danger propaganda that has been directed at kids. I grew up in the ’80s, so my entire childhood was like cops coming into my class and telling me that everyone I didn’t know in the world was a threat to me; it turns out that’s not a great thing to tell kids, and also it’s not based on any statistics. We’re much more likely to be harmed by someone we know than by a stranger, by a long shot.
So all these things, yeah, all these things amount to make people think that this is gonna go badly. That the stranger might be dangerous, that the stranger is gonna think that they’re boring, all these things. And for a lot of people, these seem insurmountable. The good news is that the research has found that when people do make the effort to do it, they are surprised by how well it goes. And I think this is where the low expectations actually help, because the bar is so low that people are like, whoa, I wasn’t murdered, this is fantastic. But it really does seem to go well, and we’ve seen that again and again and again in the research, and I talked to so many people for this book and they all reported the same thing back.
Brett McKay: And it’s interesting too, it’s not only the people who wanna initiate stranger talk, small talk, think it’s gonna go bad. People who, if you tell them like, hey, a stranger’s gonna come up and talk to you, how would that go? And they’re like, I would hate that. But even if they’re the one who has the stranger talk foisted upon them, they love it too. Like, this is great, I’m so glad someone took the time to talk to me. Alright, so our idea or perception of what stranger talk will be like, completely off. We think it’s gonna be terrible, but usually we end up enjoying it and there’s all these benefits to it. So why does talking to strangers make us feel so good? Like why is it that we, as human beings, enjoy talking to people we don’t know?
Joe Keohane: Yeah, it kind of cuts… You gotta go deeper into human history for this, and it’s… All of this stuff is pretty complicated, so there’s no real pat answer to this question. It’s a great question. I think it has to do with the fact that we’re a social species, we’re a hyper-social species. We are the rarer animal that can communicate and cooperate with strangers, relatively easily, right? We certainly can be horrible to strangers too, we have kind of a switch. We can be super xenophobic, we can be super dehumanizing and violent, but we can also be remarkably cooperative and remarkably open to interacting with and connecting with people that we don’t know. And that’s in many ways the secret of the success of the human species, is that the foundation of civilization, of human civilization, of all societies is the ability, or most many societies, is the ability to cooperate with strangers.
And that was… We were so successful at that for so long, that through this process that evolutionary biologists referred to as culture gene co-evolution, it basically means that if you do something long enough, if a species does something long enough that leads to its success, it will become encoded in the genes, and there’ll be like a certain pleasure that comes from it, there’ll be an incentive to do that. There is an incentive to expand our social networks because expanding social networks is like the key to human civilization, it’s how you scale innovation, it’s how you meet new mates, it’s how you diversify your gene pool, all these things that are really important. So the thinking is that it feels good because it’s good for us, right? Because we are hyper-social, because we need to do this in order to continue the species, but also because on a chemical level this is good for us. We require socializing. When we don’t socialize, when we don’t get enough social contact, we start to get depressed, you start to see rising levels of social anxiety, mental illness, things like that. You start to see fractures in society when people start to feel lonely. We’re really wired for it, in a really profound way.
Brett McKay: And you paint this picture and you go into detail on just sort of our circles, social circles, have just continually gotten bigger and bigger as the species has progressed. And early on it might have been just like your kin, but then our concepts of like, what is kin, it expanded. It’s like, well, if you wear the same kind of jewelry as me then we might be related, so I might not know you but we’re kind of the same. And it just kept on getting bigger and bigger until we started developing cultures and civilizations. And you point at the fact that we often typically think of ancient civilizations or even hunter-gatherers as fiercely tribal, they only care about their own, but you point out, if you look closely enough, pretty much all ancient cultures, all ancient civilizations, had very robust moral laws about how to treat strangers. Can you walk through some of these stranger rules?
Joe Keohane: Yeah, yeah, so I went deep into the anthropological record to look into how hunter-gatherer groups dealt with strangers, because our popular conception of what humans are like is that we’re tribal, and there’s this idea that we have just lived in our own groups without strangers for 99% of our entire existence on earth. And it turns out that it’s more complicated than that. It turns out that, according to field research that’s been done, and this is kind of best guess, because people weren’t writing diaries a million years ago, but based on the field research that’s been done over the last 300 years or so, that a lot of hunter-gatherer groups did figure out ways to admit strangers to their groups. And one way they would do it is by something called greeting rituals. Which is, it was like a ritualized way of interacting that allowed the stranger to demonstrate that they weren’t violent or crazy or dangerous.
And there’s a lot of research into this too, how we have a very pessimistic reading of strangers, we tend to believe that they might not have the willpower that we have, or the self-control that we have, or the internal life that we have, and so the greeting rituals were a way to establish for strangers to show that they have self-control, that they know the rules, that they’re respectful, that they’re curious, that they’re not gonna be an agent of chaos. And as a result of the development of those greeting rituals, it allowed for a great deal of traffic between hunter-gatherer bands. And according to some pretty good research on this by an anthropologist named Douglas Fry, it allowed… That traffic of people between hunter-gatherer groups was like a hedge against violence.
Right? So you think about it. So, Brett, you’re in one band, I’m in another band. My cousin leaves my band and goes to your band. Now, there’s maybe some sort of conflict or some sort of tension between both of our bands. If I didn’t know anyone in your band, I would be like, those aren’t even people, we can just kill them and take their water, take their food. But because my cousin’s over there, I will stop and be like, well, my cousin’s over there, he’s not a bad guy, maybe we can talk; maybe I can talk to my cousin and he can talk to the rest of the people. So the idea there is that that’s the basis of human civilization, the ability to do that. And they weren’t careless about it, they knew what they were doing, they were very cautious about it, but it allowed them to expand their groups and expand their social networks. And from there you see hunter-gatherer bands expand to whole cultures, like you said, where they’re developing language, they’re developing certain esthetic, like certain headwear, certain beads, things that advertise that they are a member of the group, even if you don’t recognize them and you don’t know who they are. And then from there, you can go all the way up, you can go to chiefdoms, you can go to nations, you can go to the EU, whatever. It goes and goes and goes.
This is obviously, this is a bit of a stem-winder of an answer, so if I’m going on too long feel free to stop me. But you see a lot of this sort of thing in Western religions, and you see it in ancient Greece, where the ancient religions, the Western religions were devised in a time of violence and war. So in many ways, it’s wartime literature, which accounts for why it’s often so violent. But there’s a lot of rules in there about treating strangers well. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the formation of those religions helped pave over some of the tribal differences to create a bigger we, right, a bigger us. So when you had a fractured world of a bunch of little warring tribes, it created a more expansive sense of belonging for everyone, it made strangers less strange. You definitely saw a lot of that, that was very important. And for me, I’m a pretty secular guy. I tend to be skeptical of religion even though I was raised Catholic and I did 16 years of Catholic schools, but there’s something inspiring about a species that has the capacity to do that, right?
To consider someone that they’ve never met who lives a 1000 miles away, to consider them one of their group. For me, that’s something that you can really build on. And clearly for the people who developed religion, or if you’re a religious person, the deity that pass these messages on, you saw a lot in the Old Testament and the New Testament and the Quran, like you have to be good to strangers, you have to be good to strangers, you have to accept strangers. And there are mixed messages in there too, because again it’s wartime literature. But for me that was a really inspiring thing. And ancient Greece was the same way. To violate a stranger, if a stranger came to your town and you harmed them, according to mythology, Zeus would represent the stranger and Zeus would punish you; that’s how important strangers were. Because they needed to create bigger social networks, and they needed to have alliances to be able to live in a pretty chaotic world. So the idea of the stranger became really intertwined with the Divine in those kind of early Western religions and through Greek mythology.
Brett McKay: Oh, yeah, and the Greeks are interesting, ’cause they had this whole… It was called Xenia, so basically an etiquette on how to treat strangers, and The Odyssey we typically think of as, oh, it’s a cool adventure story, where Odysseus kills the cyclops and does all this cool stuff, but it really… It’s like the Bible of how to treat strangers. And if you look at it closely, it’s all about what happens when you treat strangers poorly, and then what happens when you treat strangers correctly. The cyclops… Odysseus goes in there, and the nice thing to do… The cyclops should have just like, “Yeah, eat my goat cheese and I’m gonna treat you well.” Instead, he’s like, “I wanna eat you guys. You guys are terrible people. I don’t care if Zeus does anything to me. You guys, I don’t like you ’cause you’re strangers.”
Joe Keohane: Yeah. And Odysseus is like, and it’s the funniest part in The Odyssey, where Odysseus is like, “What are you, nuts? Like, why would you harm a stranger?” And you realize the reason why that is so sacred, that was so important to the Greeks, is because it was a chaotic world, you didn’t have central institutions, you didn’t have national armies or police or governments or things like that, necessarily. There was a great deal of conflict. And in order to travel in that world, and in order to flourish in that world and develop trading relationships and all the stuff you have to do, you needed to be able to make friends, you needed to make alliances. So when a stranger came to town, it was a big deal, it was an opportunity, right? It was an opportunity to make a friend, to learn something about the world, to get news, to maybe gain access to an innovation, and it was reciprocal, right, so you would host the stranger who to you is literally Zeus. Like Zeus is watching you as you did this, this was the belief. It’s just like with Christianity, it’s kind of the same thing. Jesus is entwined with the stranger, protects the stranger. That you would host this person, you’d give them lots of food, you’d be really good to them, maybe they stay a couple of days, whatever, but now you have an ally later.
So if you need a favor, if you’re traveling through this unstable and dangerous world, there’s a person that you can go crash with. And the idea is the more people who did that, the bigger their social networks became and the easier it became for them to move and for them to live in the world.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah. Xenia is hospitality, is how it’s usually translated.
Joe Keohane: Yeah, hospitality. Yeah, hospitality.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and what’s interesting, it’s like it’s two ways. So you had to treat the guest a certain way, but the guest had to act a certain way, or else there would be consequences for that. If you look at The Odyssey, the suitors were… Odysseus just slaughters all the suitors. Well, the suitors were just violating Xenia, they were just free-loading off of Odysseus, didn’t care, and there were consequences for that. Grave consequences.
Joe Keohane: Yeah. That’s exactly right. Yeah, you had to be… Everybody had to be on their best behavior. And this ended up being a big part of the book, is the… Humans, they can be very cooperative, they can be xenophilic, which is the word which means they actually favor strangers in a way under the right circumstances. But I don’t mean to pass it off as being like, “People are great.” People can be good, people can be bad, it depends on the circumstances. But the thing that I kept coming upon from everything from anthropological research to theology, to philosophy to governance, was the need to reconcile the opportunity that the stranger presented with the threat that they might have posed. And the way you did that is through this sort of ritualized behavior, so you do it through hospitality where you both had to demonstrate that you’re not gonna kill each other.
You can be trusted to a certain degree, you’re gonna host the person, but you’re gonna host them knowing that they’re gonna behave themselves too, and when the time comes, they’re gonna reciprocate. But a lot of it is from hunter-gatherers to the rise of hospitality, was that. It doesn’t mean that people are being hospitable because they think all people are good and lovely and wonderful and interesting, and they wanna talk to them. It was very practical. There was a way of winnowing threat from opportunity and it worked phenomenally well, ’cause again, this is the cornerstone of human civilization.
Brett McKay: Well, that’s okay, this idea that the reason why we are hospitable and treat strangers nice is ’cause we’re kind of afraid of them?
Joe Keohane: Yeah, for sure.
Brett McKay: If you highlight research, this kind of explains the Nordic people. We typically think of them as unfriendly, they’re kind of known for just keeping to themselves, but they’re actually some of the nicest, kindest people. So why is it that they’re really kind of nice, but they’re not friendly?
Joe Keohane: Yeah, because being friendly is being social in a way, and the research that I found, I was wondering… For a while, I thought that as I was trying to figure out why cultures became friendly versus unfriendly to strangers, which turns to be a pretty big question, why places that are unstable tended to be considered more friendly. So like Brazil, for example, Brazilians are amazingly social, a lot of Latin American peoples are super social, but those places don’t have really strong governments, they have a lot of corruption, they have a lot of… Often a lot of crime. And so you would think that being in an unstable place like that would make you more wary of people, and you would think that in Norway, where nothing bad ever happens basically, or Finland or the Nordic countries, you would think that because people trust each other, they trust the system and there are really high levels of social trust, which basically means you trust strangers to not kill you, you would think they’d be friendly because people aren’t a threat. And it turns out to be the opposite. In places where there is instability and there is a little more… It could be more danger, people end up being more friendly because again, you need each other, you need to make those connections in order to live in an unstable place.
And also you need to winnow the threat from the opportunities, so you need to talk to people to understand what their intentions are. And you wanna demonstrate to them that you’re not a threat. That you mean them no harm and that means maybe you can work together on something, maybe you can exchange information, maybe you can be friends, whatever. You expand your social networks. Whereas you go to a Nordic country, there’s very little social friction. There’s very little need to be social, because the state takes care of everything. And the state’s phenomenally efficient and runs really well and there are very low rates of teen pregnancy and poverty and illiteracy and crime and all that stuff. So people don’t have to be social.
And as a result, they’re just not. I spent a decent amount of time in Finland trying to figure this out. And the Finns are really sweet people, they’re really nice. It’s a lovely place. Helsinki’s a really nice town, but no one ever talks to strangers because they don’t have to, because they don’t need to rely on other citizens in order to get their business done. They just rely on the state, so you end up with a really introverted culture, whereas you go to Brazil and it’s a very extroverted culture. I thought that was fascinating. And it really is friction makes us social, friction… Socializing is a… You don’t think that friction makes us super xenophobic and it can, but it also creates a very practical need to be social, to be more social with people.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so if talking to strangers makes us feel great, and we’ve developed cultures over thousands of years that have facilitated stranger interaction, why don’t we like to talk to strangers? I guess the Nordics would be like, well, they have a stable, high-trust government that takes care of everything so that would be the answer to them, but why in America, why don’t we like to talk to talk to strangers anymore? What’s going on in us individually, and then also as a culture that makes talking to strangers not seem very pleasant?
Joe Keohane: Yeah, that’s a great question. I would preface it by saying that the US is probably better at talking to strangers than a lot of other places. And the theory behind that is that it was done out of utility. So that kind of freestyle socializing that you get in Americans that Europeans always gonna roll their eyes at, that probably happened as a result of diversity. So over the entirety of our time here, at least post-colonization, there have been a ton of immigrants in America. There have been a lot of different cultures represented, different languages spoken. And there’s this theory that when you have a situation like that, where people can’t rely on one another knowing the same language or having the same social norms, they tend to be friendlier because they need to work a little harder to convey to the other people that they’re cooperative, but also to try to get a sense of where the other person is coming from so they can work together, again, so they can function, so they can expand their social network. So America is pretty friendly generally, certainly compared to… Pretty pro-social, I’ll say social, they’re pretty social, ’cause I found Finns totally friendly too, they’re just very quiet.
But some of the things that would keep you from doing it… Like I said, the stranger danger propaganda definitely gave us a pretty warped conception or warped perception of what people are like by literally teaching children that every stranger in the world is a threat to them, that’s bad for trust, that’s bad… That gives you a pretty inaccurate view of what the world is, and it makes it more difficult for you to maybe grow your social networks and meet people. I think cities versus small towns is a big thing. People talk to strangers more in small towns, maybe less than cities, just because of overload, there are so many people around that it’s almost disorienting. Where do you even begin? And a lot of people are respectful of one another knowing that we have limited personal space in the city, and as a result, we might be outside, we might be wanting to get a moment to ourselves. But I think over the last few years, I think it’s just been the phone, to be honest, I’m not a Luddite. I love my phone. I text with people all the time, but I think it’s that. I think a mix of the sort of social norms against talking to strangers, the stranger danger stuff, and the phone has combined to take us out of the public realm to a certain degree. And I think the less frequently we interact with strangers, the more daunting it seems to be, and that drives up the pessimism.
It’s like exercise, you stop exercising for a while, you’re not just gonna get off the couch and run 26 miles, you need to build yourself back up again. I feel like we’re really out of shape socially, and so we really underestimate our social skills. And I think our social skills have probably eroded to a certain degree. I felt like mine certainly did, and I think we need to practice up a little bit, but the research found this, and I found this and a lot of people I talked to found this, that when you do make an effort to do it again, you’ll find that it comes pretty naturally. It’ll take a minute to get used to it again, to readjust to being that alert which is what you have to do, when you talk to a stranger you have to pay attention to so many different parts, so many different moving parts of the interaction from body language to what they’re saying to what you’re gonna say, and all this stuff. But yeah, it’s just getting people over that hump, it’s a mix of these people worrying that they’re gonna be bad at it, and that keeps them from doing it, and the less they do it, the worse they think they’re gonna do, and it’s just this cycle until they just withdraw from the public.
Brett McKay: Yeah, humans are lazy. We like to take the path of least resistance. Yeah, like you said, talking, just social interaction is a very… It’s very complex. It’s very engaging. It’s one of the most complex things we do. And so, given the choice between doing this really kind of hard, engaged, complex activity, “I’ll just look at Twitter.” And that’s pretty much anything as opposed to… If the choice is between exercising and watching Netflix, we’re gonna choose Netflix. So you have to be intentional about this.
Joe Keohane: Yeah, you really do. And just because it’s easier, our bias toward efficiency was probably really useful at a certain point, but it’s not useful now if it’s keeping us from getting what we need, which is we need social contact, we really do need social contact.
Brett McKay: So Gillian Sandstrom, one of the things she argues is that the reason that people don’t talk to strangers, they just don’t know how to do it. And they’ve forgotten how to do it like you said ’cause we have the phone. I think one of the things too about the phone that people like, it gives you this incredible sense of control. You can phrase what you’re gonna say perfectly, and you can workshop it with friends, like, is this the right thing to say? You can’t do that on the fly, conversation face-to-face. So you decide, okay, look… You recognize, my skills in talking to people, to strangers has degraded, I need to take a class on how to get better at this. And there’s lots of classes, surprisingly, you think like, “Wow, why is there classes to teach people how to do this very basic, very human thing?” But you went to several. I’m curious, what were some tips that you picked up on how to initiate conversations with strangers?
Joe Keohane: Yeah, I got a lot. I took a class in London with a woman named Georgie Nightingall, which is the greatest English name I’ve ever heard that didn’t come from a Dickens novel. But Georgie runs an organization called Trigger Conversations, and Gillian Sandstrom referred me to Georgie. And I talked to Georgie and she told me she was gonna do a class on talking to strangers. So I bought a plane ticket and I flew to London and I took this class. And what I wanted to do with the book is I wanted to create a road map for people who are just out of circulation. So we’re gonna start from zero. To use the marathon analogy again, we’re gonna start at the couch and we’re gonna rebuild ourselves, my assumption for a lot of people is that they’re just… They’re not doing this. They’re out of shape. They need to get back in shape. So according to Georgie, who created… It’s circuit training for becoming a social animal, again, she would start small and get used to it and get used to confronting the discomfort and kind of questioning the discomfort you feel and observing what people’s reactions are. So Georgie had us start by making eye contact with people. Now, I think in a small town, this is probably a little different, but a city, there’s not a lot of eye contact.
When you’re walking down the street, you’re not pausing to make eye contact with everyone on 5th Avenue in New York City. So Georgie was like, “Just make eye contact. People you walk by, you just make eye contact and monitor how that feels.” And how it felt was super weird because I wasn’t doing that, and I live in New York. This is not how people usually engage. But I did it for a few days and it started to feel normal and I started to notice that people were actually pretty receptive to it. The ones who noticed kind of lit up at being seen, at being greeted. And from there, Georgie had us just start greeting people, say, “Good morning. I hope you have a good day.” Wishing people well, which again feels really weird and forward, but people really lit up when you did that. I got kind of avant-garde with it, and I started just telling people to, “Give ’em hell out there today.” And stuff like that, and they really liked that and you’d get a laugh and you’d feel good, you felt this little connection, maybe they felt that someone noticed them. Because I think a lot of people don’t really feel noticed all that much, but some of the really good tips beyond that, once you get comfortable with that really rudimentary form of social contact, you can start to do things…
Georgie had this brilliant idea of when you’re in a situation where someone’s asking you how you are, but they don’t care, and you don’t care either, so you’re buying something in the store and the person is like, “How ya doing?” And you’re like, “Fine, how are you?” “I’m fine” but no information has been exchanged and no one’s really paying attention, to answer those scripted questions with specificity and honesty, and that doesn’t mean, “I have this boil that’s been bothering me.” You wanna be appropriate about it, but Georgie always did this thing where someone would ask how she’s doing at a coffee shop or something, and she would answer numerically. She would say, “I’m about a seven out of 10, I would say.” And then she would say, “How are you?” And so what does this do? This shows the person that something else is happening. This is a different sort of interaction and it’s gonna require their attention. This person is actually engaging with them. And more often than not, the person Georgie was talking to would answer numerically too, “I’m an eight out of a 10.” And then Georgie would say, “What’ll it take to get you to a 9?” And in two seconds, you’re having a conversation, and this doesn’t have to go on forever, this is just a little connection.
They get a little taste of what it’s like to be you, you get a little taste of what it’s like to be them. If it goes for a bit, if you have a little bit of time, it can go on to some pretty profound places, but as the research shows, even if it’s a little thing, it’ll make us feel better. It’ll make the world feel a little less chaotic, it’ll make us feel better about people. It really is kind of a magic trick in a way.
Brett McKay: You can do this stuff with the cashier, the barista, it doesn’t have to be just random people you walk up to, which you could if you wanted to, but…
Joe Keohane: Yeah, yeah, it’s… They’re great to practice on, because it’s finite, you’re not gonna… You can’t stand at that cash register for like half an hour. You’re gonna have to do it quick. And it’s just a good way to practice. It’s in a public environment, there’s not gonna be any suspicion or anything because it’s clear what your roles are. You’re a customer, they work in the store, or they’re a waiter, or whatever it is. So a lot of the uncertainty that people have about a stranger is kind of eliminated, when you’re in that sort of context. So it makes it a really good place to practice. So you start with the eye contact and things like that, then you can start practicing in a service context, and then the better you get at it, the quicker you get at it, and the more attentive you get, then you can start doing it in other places too, where the interactions are gonna be much more complicated.
Brett McKay: Another tip I like that she had was, you start with statements, not questions.
Joe Keohane: If you’re doing it in a public place where it’s not the norm to talk to strangers, so a good example is a subway where people don’t really talk to strangers, you can alleviate the fear that you are unhinged, which is everybody’s fear when you’re talking to strangers, that there’s something wrong, because why else would they be talking to someone on the subway? Why else would they be violating a social norm? You can alleviate that just by acknowledging that you’re violating the social norm. It’s called a pre-frame basically, and it’s a way of establishing what the interaction is right out of the gate. So instead of you’re on the train with someone and you just say, “Where’d you get your hat?” That’s gonna put people on the defensive, they’re not gonna know who you are and now you’re asking them questions, “Do I have to answer this question?” When you ask someone a question, you’re basically demanding that they do something, you’re asking something. Instead of doing that, you can pre-frame it by just saying, “Look, I know we’re not supposed to talk to people on the subway, but I really like your hat.” And then leave it there.
And they’ll probably respond. People are flattered when you notice something about them, as long as it’s appropriate, and maybe they tell you about the hat. And maybe in telling you about the hat, you learn about a trip they took, and then you can talk about a trip, these little things. But to start with that, to start with a statement, to use a pre-frame just to demonstrate out of the gate that there’s not something wrong with you, that you are of sound mind, that you are a human with self-control and self-awareness. And then they tell you about the hat and you just listen. You don’t immediately barge in and start talking about your hat. You just ask questions, ask basic questions. Once they’re comfortable, “Oh, okay. You got this hat in New Hampshire. Do you go to New Hampshire often?” “Oh yeah, I used to go there as a kid. Blah, blah, blah.” And then you can go from there. But you do need to kinda leave it in their court a little bit and be very respectful, and if they’re not interested in talking, you have to respect that and just thank them and pull away.
Brett McKay: So one argument I’ve heard why people wouldn’t wanna do this, they’d be like, “Well, that sort of stranger talk, it’s very shallow and superficial, it’s small talk. It’s not meaningful. So it’s a waste of time.” What would you say to those people?
Joe Keohane: Yeah, I was definitely one of those people. I’d die inside every time someone asked me what I do for a living. And I really like what I do for living. People don’t understand what small talk is. So there’s a social anthropologist named Kate Fox in the UK who studied this, she studied weather talk in England. And the English are notorious for this. They always talk about weather and people make fun of them for it because they think it’s an indication that they don’t have anything else to talk about. But Fox’s finding was that it’s not a conversation, it’s a bonding ritual. So small talk isn’t about the exchange of information, it’s not supposed to be the state of the entire interaction. What it does is that it shows that you’re both of sound mind and that you’re experiencing something together. So when you talk about the rain, “It’s raining out.” okay, I know this person at least understands that it’s raining outside, so maybe we can talk. But it’s a way of just getting people comfortable with one another, establishing that you’re in the presence of this other person, that maybe you’re experiencing something together, maybe you’re watching a street performer, maybe there’s a snowstorm.
Whatever it is, and then going from there. So the trick with small talk is to use it just to have that initial engagement and just to make yourself more comfortable and make them more comfortable, and then from there, you can have a real interaction. The problem is when people get stuck in that stage, it’s brutal, it’s horrible. There’s research that shows that small talk, if you do it enough, it’s just bad for you, it just rots your insides. And I certainly feel that way as a pathologically impatient person, that I hate it, but now I understand what it is. And there are certain tweaks that you can do to get out of the small talk. So say, you’re talking to someone at a networking event or something like that, the first question is always, “What do you do?” What you can do instead of saying, “What do you do?” Which is usually interpreted as a signal that you don’t care and you have nothing to offer and this is gonna be another soul-deadening small talk conversation, flip it, flip the question and ask, “What would you like to do more of?” You know what I mean? So you can ask them what they do and they can tell you and then say, “Okay, let me ask you another question. What would you like to do more of?” And that gets you right into a real conversation.
So the small talk part establishes the hint of a connection, it starts the conversation. The goal is to get out of there as quick as possible. And for me, “What would you like to do more of?” Is one of the best ways to do it.
Brett McKay: When you started doing this or talking to strangers, beginning with small talk, a lot of times I imagine the conversation maybe stopped after two or three minutes, it was very on the surface. And that’s fine. You still felt good after your experience, how often did your small talk with a stranger switch over to more of a deep conversation?
Joe Keohane: It depended on the context. If you’re waiting in line or something that’s not gonna go that long, you do have to be sitting with a person for quite some time. On planes… And I know this tends to drive people crazy too, or at least people have very pessimistic idea of conversations with strangers on planes ’cause you’re captive so I would caution people who do wanna initiate conversations on planes or buses, be very mindful of the reaction that the person is giving you. Don’t be oblivious to the social cues that they’re giving off that they don’t wanna talk to you, but yeah, I literally took a 48-hour train trip across the country just to see what kind of conversations I would have. And I had extraordinarily good conversations. People were fascinating. I took this Amtrak train from Chicago to LA, those went really well. And almost every single conversation I had was like an hour-long conversation ’cause we were there, we were in the same space. We had all the time in the world. If I’m talking to someone on the subway, it kind of depends on when I’m getting off, but I’ve had 20-minute conversations on the subway too that were great, that were really interesting and illuminating and that I still think about today.
It just has to do with the context and you do have to be really aware of what else is going on, so you can’t be the chatter box in line at the supermarket when there are 10 people waiting behind you, you gotta be very alert to everything to the conversation you’re having, but also the effect that you might be having on the people around you.
Brett McKay: Speaking of being aware of context, how do you deal with rejection, let’s say you try to initiate a conversation and you’re getting a vibe that this person doesn’t want anything to do with you, how do you deal with that without deciding, oh, humanity is terrible, I’m gonna stop doing this.
Joe Keohane: Yeah, Georgie Nightingall’s idea is that most of the time what we interpret as rejection isn’t even rejection, it might be confusion because this is… It can be unusual if you initiate a conversation on the subway or something or on a sidewalk in a city, people just aren’t gonna understand what it is, ’cause they’re not waiting for it, they’re not expecting it. And so sometimes people might walk away or they might turn away, and it’s not because they have rejected you, it’s because they’re just sort of confused, and so Georgie’s advice on this that she told us is, if you say something and people don’t seem to get it, you can just say it again. That’s okay. If people are rejecting you, if people are fleeing from you, if people are being, God forbid, someone’s alarmed by you, then you have to pull away. I didn’t have any experiences like that, certainly, there was a great deal of confusion when I would start talking to people, but once you’ve got adept enough at this, you could make it clear what this was, what you’re interested in and what you were asking about or what you were saying, and people would go along for the ride. I think once you get past that initial hump, people were amazingly receptive.
And I can’t say… Some people weren’t really game, but it was still kind of fun to do, I can’t say that I was rejected at any point, and the research by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, and they’ve done this in Chicago and in London, found that the chance of actual rejection was very, very low, but it really is just making it clear to the person what’s happening here and making them feel comfortable, and then the research shows that these conversations can even go like three times longer than people anticipated they would go.
Brett McKay: So here in America, there’s a lot of polarization politically, and this idea of talking to a stranger who might be completely different from us, see the world different from us is… It’s fraught, “I don’t know if I wanna do that.” There’s been a lot of research saying how we’re starting to sort politically, the different neighborhood zip codes, etcetera, or sort of segregating ourselves, how can talking to strangers overcome the polarization that we’re seeing in our country?
Joe Keohane: Yeah, so polarization is basically when it gets extreme, like it has now, it’s a form of dehumanization, and the way people talk about their opponents on the other side of the aisle is that they aren’t like us culturally, but also just we tend to believe that our political opponents in times like this, they don’t have the same will power we have, they’re just obedient cogs in a machine, they’re not individuals like we are, like we are the snowflakes. We’re so much smarter and we’re savvy and we’re subtle, we have nuanced thoughts and everything, and those people over there are just like a witless machine. That’s dehumanization, and it can turn very bad obviously, and it’s turning very bad right now. But what talking strangers does is that it makes it virtually impossible to maintain a really simplistic idea of what a person is, of who a person is and who a representative of a group is. So I spent a decent amount of time with a group called Braver Angels, at that their convention in St. Louis, which is just a group that literally teaches Democrats and Republicans to sit across from each other and have a conversation, and it turns out that that’s a really complicated, difficult thing to do, just so far gone we are, that we need to be trained to do something that we’ve been doing since we were in nursery school.
And a big part of it is making sure that these people talk as individuals before they talk as members of their cliques, of their parties, and so they sit them down and they just give them questions. They say, where are you from? What brought you here? Why are you interested in this? Do you have kids? Are you married? Do you have any pets? Like just small talk stuff. And again, this is the importance of small talk, is that it demonstrates across party lines that the other person is an individual, that the other person is complex, that the other person is intelligent and respectful, and they kinda hang out there for a while, and then the questions get a little more heavy as they go through, but they’ve established this connection, they’ve established that they both believe one another are full human beings, and only once you’ve secured that bond can you move on to more difficult things, and this is basically the opposite of how political discussion happens in America, which is always just like, okay, abortion, gun control, go, and then people fight and no one talks and no one listens and nothing ever gets done and it just keeps getting worse.
So you need to foster those connections, those personal connections, and you need to reinforce the idea that the other people, the other block, it consists of individuals that have thoughts of their own, and maybe those people are interesting and maybe you talk enough, maybe there is something you can agree on. You’re not gonna solve all of the big problems this way, you’re probably not gonna solve any of the big problems this way, but it’s a start. The thinking with Braver Angels is that if you can get charming enough and comfortable enough with one another that you live in a town together and you can fix some potholes, then that’s great. That’s a start. That builds up a little bit of trust. It demonstrates that we can work together, that we are reasonable, and then you can scale it from there, that’s the idea, but it really is like you have to make an effort to deny yourself the idea that other people are simpler than you are. That’s a really important thing. In a time like this, it’s critical.
Brett McKay: And I imagine that’s why conversations about politics online, particularly Twitter are so fraught, ’cause it’s so easy to dehumanize ’cause you don’t even see anybody. It’s like it’s just an app, digital avatar.
Joe Keohane: Yeah, it’s like you take a view and then you invent a fictitious person based on that view and then you rage against that person, you don’t see the entirety of the person, and you can certainly do that if you use… If you go online with a certain discipline and a certain intent, you can have extraordinarily good exchanges with strangers online, but you just have to resist the temptation to dismiss and be contemptuous of people, you really have to ask questions, you have to be curious. You know, I had a guy from Texas who threatened to kill me one time over a story I wrote and sent me a threatening email saying he’d kill me if I ever came to Texas, and I didn’t have a lot to do that day, this was a few years ago, and I was like, you know, I’m gonna write back to this guy, I’m gonna push back and demonstrate to him like, look, I’m a guy, I’m a person like you are. Maybe we can talk about this. And it worked great. By the end of it, he was inviting me to Texas to drink. But that’s the sort of stuff, resisting the temptation, the self-righteous thrill of dismissing and being contemptuous of someone else is really important if we’re gonna repair some of the political damage that’s been done in this country, but I do think it’s not a silver bullet, it’s gonna say 20 years to fix this damage, but this is where it starts.
Brett McKay: So how has your life changed since writing this book and starting to talk to strangers on the regular?
Joe Keohane: It made me weirdly optimistic in a way that I wasn’t before, I work in a cynical business, I work in journalism, I was raised by funeral directors and a family of funeral directors, so I’m not by nature, a super sunny-minded person, I am skeptical, I can be cynical, I can be pessimistic. But what I found is that talking to as many people as I could made me feel better about humanity at a time when everybody felt worse about humanity. And this is a thought I had after I finished the book. I think it comes down to the data that you get when you make a habit of talking to more people you don’t know.
I think when your perception of the world is fueled by social media and by the media, which is overwhelmingly negative, that’s the incentive structure, that’s the business, you get a really warped perception of what everyone is like, you see some jerk on Twitter and you’re like, ah, people are disgusting, there are certainly some terrible things happening, there are some people who can be really awful, but when that’s coloring your perception of humans, that’s really unhealthy. When you do go out and you interact with people in person, and you find… And the research found this, and then I found it, and a lot of other people found it, that it goes well, that people are receptive and people are interesting, and people are pretty good, it gives you better data, it gives you more complete data and it allows you to create maybe a more accurate perception of what people are like.
So for me, I think that was the case. I just got so good at talking to people all the time that it became part of my life, and I literally made new friends. I actually made new friends while doing this book, but I feel a little bit better. I feel a little bit more secure in the world, and I find that especially when I have interactions with people from different groups than me, I find that that’s a hedge against generalization, and I think it’s really valuable, and I think gaining perspective into the lives of people who are different than we are is the road to wisdom. I think it’s the road to good citizenship. I think it’s really, really, really valuable.
Brett McKay: Well, Joe, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Joe Keohane: The book is called The Power of strangers. It’s available anywhere books are sold. I’m on Twitter @JoeKeohane. I have a fairly bare-bones website, joekeohane.net. But yeah, that’s about it. But you can get the book anywhere.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Joe Keohane, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Joe Keohane: Thanks, Brett. Thanks so much for having me on.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Joe Keohane, he’s the author of the book, The Power of strangers, available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, joekeohane.net. That’s J-O-E-K-E-O-H-A-N-E.net. Also check out our show notes @aom.is/strangers. Where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic. Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast, check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of The AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium, head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial. Once you sign up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of The AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate you take one minute to give us a review of The AOM podcast on Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you.
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