The main concept: the importance of engaging in conversations with unfamiliar individuals.
During a flight delay from Florida to New York, a stranger and I engaged in conversation. We both struggled with keeping our toddlers entertained and bonded over our shared struggles. Once our children had fallen asleep, the stranger revealed that he had recently left the Mormon church. He expressed missing the sense of community and certainty he once had. As he navigated how to raise his child without religion, he wondered if he should still mention the concept of heaven when his daughter asked, even though he no longer fully believed in it.
Perhaps it is easier to converse intimately with a stranger during a flight, when both individuals are displaced and disoriented, unsure of the time of day or the position of the sun in the sky. It could be that being suspended in the air at high speeds, supported by unfamiliar forces, prompts one’s mind to contemplate existential matters. During our flight, we discussed fear and loss, and afterwards, I realized that while society may discourage such deep conversations, they may actually be most beneficial with a complete stranger who has a unique perspective on the world.
After returning to stable ground, the man revealed that he had engaged in numerous meaningful conversations with unfamiliar individuals. He was influenced by cognitive scientist Laurie Santos, whose course on the science of happiness, which has become the most sought-after in Yale’s 300-year existence, is currently accessible for free on the internet. Santos teaches that the pursuit of happiness often goes against our instincts. The things we believe will bring us joy – excelling in exams, obtaining our dream job, purchasing a desired item – typically do not, but small habits can have a significant impact. One such habit is engaging in conversation with strangers.
Psychologists have observed that small social interactions can have a positive impact on our happiness and sense of connection, even though we tend to prioritize our close relationships. A study showed that individuals who engaged in a brief conversation with their barista or simply made eye contact and smiled reported feeling happier and more connected compared to those who treated the person serving them as an object rather than a human being. Another study from 2014, titled “Mistakenly seeking solitude,” discovered that individuals who were encouraged to interact with other passengers on Chicago public transport had a more positive experience during their commute compared to those who did not engage in conversation.
The study found that we often underestimate the enjoyment of conversing with a stranger, as well as the enjoyment they may have in talking to us. This was shown when the researchers replicated their findings from Chicago with commuters in London. While we tend to believe that small talk is best when speaking with strangers, studies have shown that when instructed to have deeper conversations with unfamiliar individuals, people are pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and comfortable it can be.
However, contemporary society is structured to minimize these interactions. It has become simple to avoid communicating with unfamiliar individuals. You can telecommute or wear headphones and focus on a screen while commuting; you can utilize self-checkout or order practically anything through an application. We are social beings who have transformed into antisocial beings. With our smartphones in hand, we are constantly accessible yet consistently distant from each other, preoccupied by our gadgets.
In today’s society, our interactions with strangers have changed due to the widespread use of the internet. It has become simple and inexpensive to communicate with individuals from different parts of the world or engage with large groups of strangers simultaneously. This has been beneficial for those who may have previously felt isolated, as it has helped them connect with like-minded individuals. However, forming a community remotely can come at a price when living among unfamiliar people. According to a survey by a charity, 20% of individuals have never conversed with their neighbors and the same percentage do not have anyone in their neighborhood, aside from their immediate family, that they could turn to for assistance.
Due to our lack of appreciation for small social interactions, we fail to fully understand the impact of losing them. However, I believe we still feel the effects. According to a recent survey, 7% of individuals in Great Britain report feeling chronically lonely. Another report showed that the same percentage of people do not have a close friend. This is a foreseeable result of the decline in community spaces, such as libraries, community centers, and pubs. It also suggests that despite our constant connectivity through the internet, many individuals struggle to form meaningful social relationships.
Interacting with strangers can have benefits for both individuals and society as a whole. Research suggests that one way to combat prejudice is by bringing people together and encouraging conversation, as it is easier to dehumanize those who are different from us when we are not face-to-face. Despite concerns about online echo chambers, studies show that our offline social circles are still the most likely to be filled with like-minded individuals. However, the internet is not always an effective place to meet and engage with new perspectives. Algorithmic feeds often expose us to extreme viewpoints, and we tend to react with more hostility when interacting with those we disagree with online. Studies have also shown that people are more likely to dehumanize those with opposing political views when reading their opinions rather than hearing them in person. In a world where divisions are prevalent, it is important to find new ways to engage in real-life conversations as a kind gesture towards one another.
I am fortunate to have the opportunity as a journalist to converse with a large number of unfamiliar individuals. These encounters often involve individuals who have impacted or amazed me, enlightened me, or changed my perspective on life. However, if prompted, many of us can recall a group of strangers who have deeply affected us in significant or indescribable ways.
Meeting new people can serve as a humbling realization of the vastness of our world and of other individuals. It is difficult to comprehend that each person carries their own entire universe of thoughts and a unique viewpoint. As humans, we possess the ability to display both kindness and cruelty, as well as to demonstrate courage and creativity.
Joe Keohane’s book, “The Power of Strangers” is available for purchase from Penguin at a price of £10.99.
“Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones That Haunt Us” is a book written by Colleen Kinder and published by Algonquin, priced at £15.99.
The Hope Circuit by Martin Seligman (John Murray, £16.99)