Should we talk to strangers?

Kio Stark insists we should. In a stirring TED talk, Stark shares how talking to strangers can enhance our lives and open us to new opportunities. Stark’s chief concern: by teaching our children, and ourselves, to fear strangers, we just may be closing ourselves off to meaningful encounters.

Stark is one of those rare humans who consciously makes contact with strangers, wherever she finds them. And I can relate. I’m often struck by the reality that while all 7.2 billion of us are travelers on the same ship, we nonetheless spend much of our time separating from one another.

Not Stark. When she says hello to people on the street, as she often does, her four-year-old asks: “Do we know them?”

“No, they’re our neighbor.”

“Are they our friend?”

“No, it’s just good to be friendly.”

Stark pauses every time she says these words because, “as a woman, particularly, I know that not every stranger on the street has the best intentions.” But Stark insists: “It is good to be friendly, and it’s good to learn when not to be, but none of that means we have to be afraid.”

Author of the novel “Follow Me Down,” and the TED book “When Strangers Meet,” Stark cites two major benefits to using our senses instead of our fears:

“The first one is that it liberates us. When you think about it, using perception instead of categories is much easier said than done. Categories are something our brains use. When it comes to people, it’s sort of a shortcut for learning about them. We see male, female, young, old, black, brown, white, stranger, friend, and we use the information in that box. It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s a road to bias. And it means we’re not thinking about people as individuals. I know an American researcher who travels frequently in Central Asia and Africa, alone. She’s entering into towns and cities as a complete stranger. She has no bonds, no connections. She’s a foreigner. Her survival strategy is this: get one stranger to see you as a real, individual person. If you can do that, it’ll help other people see you that way, too.

“The second benefit of using our senses has to do with intimacy. I know it sounds a little counterintuitive, intimacy and strangers, 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.”

Five ways to connect with strangers

So how do we do it? What techniques can we use to connect with strangers? Stark offers five:

1. Smile. “Find somebody who is making eye contact. That’s a good signal. The first thing is a simple smile. If you’re passing somebody on the street… smile. See what happens.”

2. Triangulation. When you’re with a stranger, find a third object (e.g., a piece of public art, a scene on the street), then “make a comment about that third thing, and see if it starts a conversation.”

3. Noticing. One popular way to connect is by simply giving a compliment. Says Stark: “I’m a big fan of noticing people’s shoes…And they’re pretty neutral as far as giving compliments goes. People always want to tell you things about their awesome shoes.”

4. Dogs and Babies. It can be awkward to talk to someone on the street,” notes Stark. “You don’t know how they’re going to respond. But you can always talk to their dog or their baby. The dog or the baby is a social conduit to the person, and you can tell by how they respond whether they’re open to talking more.”

5. Disclosure. “This is a very vulnerable thing to do, and it can be very rewarding,” explains Stark. “So next time you’re talking to a stranger and you feel comfortable, tell them something true about yourself, something really personal…Sometimes in conversation, it comes up, people ask me, ‘What does your dad do?’ or, ‘Where does he live?’ And sometimes I tell them the whole truth, which is that he died when I was a kid. Always in those moments, they share their own experiences of loss. We tend to meet disclosure with disclosure, even with strangers.”

Stark’s bottom line: “If you don’t talk to strangers, you’re missing out…We spend a lot of time teaching our children about strangers. What would happen if we spent more time teaching ourselves? We could reject all the ideas that make us so suspicious of each other. We could make a space for change.”

Daniel Island Publishing

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Daniel Island, SC 29492 

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