Talking with strangers


Talking to strangers: our parents’ may have warned us against it when we were kids, but as adults, we all do it. Yet more often than not, it’s just a simple, polite ‘Hello, how are you?’ and stops at that. Which American author Kio Stark thinks is a shame. If we were more open to having chats with people we don’t know, they could lead to beautiful things.

In her TED Talk, Why you should talk to strangers, Stark mentions that we tend to walk past someone out of fear. “The 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,” she says. “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’.”

The advantages

According to Stark, we should use our senses more often, instead of our fear. It liberates us from bias, which we often have when it comes to strangers. By entering into a conversation more often, we get a more open view of the world. There is another advantage, and that has to do with intimacy. “I know it sounds a little counterintuitive, intimacy and strangers,” says Stark, “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.”

Here’s how it’s done

How do you make contact with someone you meet on the street or on the bus or train? According to Stark there are several different ways.

  1. Find somebody who is making eye contact. That’s a good signal. Start with a simple smile. If you’re passing someone on the street or in the hallway, smile. See what happens.
  2. Create a ‘triangle situation’. There’s you, there’s the stranger, and there’s a third thing that you both might see and comment about, such as a piece of public art or someone preaching in the street or someone wearing funny clothes. Give it a try. Say something about that third thing and see if it starts a conversation.
  3. Use a compliment as an icebreaker. Stark calls this ‘noticing’; noticing something about someone else’s shoes, for example, is fairly neutral when it comes to giving a compliment, and people always want to tell you something about them.
  4. And then there’s the dog and baby principle, which you may well have already experienced. Talking to people on the street can be awkward as you never really know how they will respond. But you can always talk to their dog or their baby: these are a social conduit to the person, and you can tell by their reaction if they’re open to talking more.

You can watch Stark’s TED Talk here.

Photography Joseph Pearson/