Inside Story

Stranger danger

An American take on the benefits of talking to strangers has a message for Australians

Nick Haslam Books 3 September 2021 1185 words

Conversations with strangers boost our mood and sense of belonging. iStockphoto

The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World
By Joe Keohane | Penguin Books | $35.00 | 352 pages

Who among us has not experienced that bilious mix of disappointment, irritation and dread that comes when someone shuffles down the aisle of a plane and claims the empty seat beside us? Our bubble of privacy is burst, and we hurriedly blow a new, smaller one. We gaze intently at our phone, bury our faces in rapt attention in the inflight magazine, or feign sleep. In extreme cases, if the intruder offers a friendly greeting, we may pretend to be deaf, or French.

Alternatively, we could do the unthinkable and return our new seatmate’s volley with a greeting of our own. Joe Keohane’s new book argues that our lives, societies and polities would be much improved if we took this path. Talking and listening to strangers helps to humanise them, to broaden us, and to include us and them in a more expansive we. Connecting to unfamiliar people builds social trust, overcomes loneliness, enhances appreciation of diversity, depolarises attitudes and dissolves group boundaries.

This kind of connection is also a profoundly satisfying experience for individuals, Keohane finds, in an era when technology seems to be replacing the rough and tumble of personal contact with frictionless but impersonal efficiency. Once the initial awkwardness lifts, conversing with people who have different views, stories and backgrounds from our own is enriching, enlivening and enjoyable.

Why then do we avoid these conversations, freezing out our companion in seat 34B? Keohane lets us count the ways. There may be a primal fear of strangers. We may view them through the lens of caricatures and group stereotypes. We may see them as lacking mental complexity, in a banal form of dehumanisation that Keohane calls the “lesser minds” problem.

Our reasons for failing to engage may also reflect how we think they see us as much as how we see them. We may worry about being rejected if we reach out, or assume that the other person won’t find us interesting. People may simply not know how to start the conversation, or feel embarrassed and tongue-tied at the prospect. And there may be a social norm against talking to strangers in some settings.

Despite these obstacles, a raft of social psychology research shows that conversations with strangers tend to go better than people expect and boost our mood and sense of belonging. Indeed, people systematically overestimate the risks of interactions with strangers and underestimate the benefits.

Keohane is not offering a one-sidedly psychological account of the importance of social connection, however. He presents a history of our hypersocial species from the deep evolutionary time of our primate ancestors through to the contemporary reality of urban living. Far from being Hobbesian beasts — we’re more akin to bonobos, the so-called “hippie apes,” than to murderous chimpanzees — humans have evolved to cooperate.

In addition to having a neurochemistry that fosters attachments to those close to us, we have strong tendencies to link up with those more distant by reciprocating their behaviour and extending honorary kinship to them. As early humans settled into agrarian communities and eventually congregated in cities, new ways of welcoming and integrating strangers emerged. Ritualised hospitality became a virtue as trade routes drew people from foreign lands. Religions, for all their bad press, created communities of belief out of mutually suspicious tribes and made a virtue of kindness to strangers.

Mutual suspicion is part of modern life, and withdrawing from unwanted contact is increasingly easy, so Keohane goes in search of people offering solutions. He attends a meeting of a group called Conversations New York, where strangers come together for a supervised discussion of topics of the day. In London he takes part in an extended workshop on how to talk to strangers, complete with an assortment of inhibition-busting homework assignments. In Los Angeles he observes urban confessionals where people offer free listening to passers-by. In the American Midwest he witnesses the convention of an organisation that tries to bring together Democrats and Republicans, identified by blue and red lanyards, for respectful conversations with ground rules that forbid grandstanding and pointscoring.

So much for clubs, classes, eccentrics on street corners and tongue-biting discussions with ideological opponents. Could we produce xenophilia on a grander scale? Keohane implies that this aspiration might be challenging. Many cultural trends are pushing in the other direction, deepening our isolation, accelerating the speed of life, and shielding people from direct human contact. Levels of general trust in others have declined in many societies.

We are warned of the threats posed by strangers while the statistically greater threats tend to be closer to home. Increasingly we communicate impersonally, without the empathy-inducing presence of facial expressions, voice and touch. Our cities create sensory overload that fosters “civil inattention” to others and sends us to the self-checkout lane so we can avoid a perfunctory chat with a bored cashier.

Beyond these social forces, Keohane argues that well-functioning and egalitarian societies may be paradoxically less open to strangers than more unstable alternatives. Research finds greater reserve and lesser hospitality in more highly developed societies, perhaps reaching a peak in Scandinavia, where Keohane observes well-meaning efforts to defrost self-contained Finns. Civility fails to promote openness to strangers because there is little felt need to interact when life is safe and secure. Abstract generosity in the form of strong welfare provision and large refugee intakes can coexist with coolness and incuriosity towards people outside our circles of friends and family.

If wealth and security fail to generate the desire to approach and embrace strangers, what does? Better-designed public spaces have a role in encouraging mixing and sharing, Keohane says. Ultimately, though, we need initiatives that bring diverse people together and do it wisely, fully aware that connecting with strangers requires some orchestration.

Without guidance and new rules of engagement, conversations with people who differ from us tend to descend into excesses of argument and deficits of listening, reinforcing our prior belief that they are fools and villains. Mere contact with people who are different from us will not reliably increase mutual trust and understanding in the absence of shared goals and genuine equality.

But besides new forums for conversations with strangers, we need people of goodwill to emerge from their family burrows, their digital echo chambers and their social inhibitions to take part in them. The Power of Strangers concludes with an exhortation to us all to do just that.

Some readers may be sceptical of Keohane’s bottom-up approach to patching the social fabric and his emphasis on grassroots initiatives to connect strangers. In an age when group identities are so salient, it might seem odd to promote solutions that boil down to individuals having more and better one-on-one conversations.

There is certainly something deeply American about this combination of individualism and communitarianism, not to mention the idealistic impulse behind Keohane’s prescriptions. E pluribus unum could be his motto, albeit with an enlightened awareness that the unum is diverse. Even so, Australian readers should find The Power of Strangers an inspiring and illuminating read. It’s not as if loneliness, tribalism and political polarisation are strangers to us. •