Thirty years had passed since the fleeting moment at a train station but the woman remembered it. Her train was at a standstill with its doors open. Another train pulled up across the platform and opened its doors, too. Waiting, the woman made eye contact with a man on the other train. They held the gaze until all the doors started closing, when they both waved goodbye.
“It was a moment of connection with a stranger that felt real and good. They didn’t need to know each other,” writes Kio Stark in her new book When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You. That anecdote, which belongs to a friend of hers, is just one poignant example of many.
Stark is a big believer in talking to strangers, be it the corner-store clerk, a guy manspreading on her subway car, a dog walker out for a moonlit stroll in her neighbourhood or a man sharing her elevator who is wearing beautiful shoes. For Stark, talking to random people helps rupture her daily routine, rapidly builds empathy and offers the unique thrill of gleaning something real about someone she’s never met before and probably will never meet again.
In an insular and hostile world, Stark may be one of the last to relish this particular social challenge. As children, we grow up hearing about “stranger danger;” in adulthood, we fear breaking tacit codes around appropriate public behaviour. Then there is what Stark calls the “density of purpose” of cities to contend with: the frenetic pace, the deadlines, the overtime, the errands, the gloating busyness.
All this resistance, even though “cities are machines for interaction among strangers,” Stark writes.
Urban connection and loneliness have tranfixed authors and readers in recent years: Olivia Laing embraced its particular sting in New York in this year’s The Lonely City and Toronto’s Emily White combatted it with a year-long “belongingness challenge,” described in her 2015 book Count Me In. Others sounded a wider alarm, including MIT guru Sherry Turkle in 2015’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, and developmental psychologist Susan Pinker in 2014’s The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier. All this as hordes continue to mass-empathize with the strangers featured on Humans of New York, photographer Brandon Stanton’s ongoing blog of portraits and intimate interviews with people he approaches on the streets of that city and all over the world.
We seem simultaneously fixated on and completely wary of strangers today. Stark spoke with The Globe and Mail from New York about the “beautiful interruption” of talking to people you don’t know.
In an age when we’ve got our heads buried in our tablets and earbuds in on the commute home – when people stare at their phones like zombies when they walk down the street – are we communing with strangers less than generations past?
There’s a lot of conversation about technology and what it’s doing to our relationships, but in this particular instance of interacting with strangers in public, it is not as dramatic an intrusion. People on the New York subway, maybe just a quarter have headphones in. Many are sleeping or staring off into space. Before, people used to read books a lot in the subway or the newspaper was right in front of their faces: It was massive and hid your eyes so much more. What is this mythology that our devices are cutting us off?
Maybe if you blame technology, you don’t have to blame yourself?
Maybe. Everybody needs to tune out some of the time in the face of the city. Cities are overwhelming; there’s a lot of stimulation. But I want people to understand that there is a pleasure and political importance to, at least some of the time, having your eyes open to the other people around you, making eye contact, having these small interactions that make us feel like we’re connected to each other, like we belong to the same place.
Today, young women are increasingly vocal about street harassment and things like “manspreading” (on public transit, men taking up a seat and a half, typically the woman’s half, when they spread their legs way out), or the way some men try to get a woman’s attention even when she’s got her headphones on, a clear social signal that she’s not interested in a conversation. At a time when there’s such heated gendered debate about public space, how do you make nice with strangers?
The fact that street harassment is so pervasive is a great tragedy for many reasons, especially for women’s personal experience of public space. I do talk to lots of strangers: It’s a passion and a professional commitment. But I am also taking a risk every time I say “hello” to a guy on the street as he passes by me, a risk that he’s going to consider it as an opening. I take a few hits. I say “hello” to some man and he says, “hey, baby,” and I feel, “blah, that didn’t feel good to me.” I have a certain commitment to keep taking that risk but I wouldn’t tell any woman that she should do this.
Men have to be really sensitive about whether women are making eye contact before they make the civil overture of saying “hello.” They have to respect the headphones and whatever signals women are giving off that say, “Get away from me.” I’m speaking to men who are not ritual street harassers. They have to be good bystanders. If you want to make it a better culture where it’s more possible for you to say “hello,” be a good ally. If you see a woman getting harassed, call the person out on it. Even a disapproving glance helps the woman feel like what’s happened has been noticed and not approved of.
You describe a somewhat clumsy exchange with a male bagel clerk who was unwilling to go past the small talk with you. What happens when we offer a stranger our particular brand of humour and it falls flat? Isn’t that more alienating than it is connecting?
When you lift weights, your muscles hurt and then they get stronger. If you’re trying to get more comfortable with this, you have to commit yourself to keep trying. The exception is street harassment: If you get harassed on the street there is no reason why you should try this again. But if it’s just awkwardness, awkwardness isn’t that awful. It’s a very human thing. I still go back to that bodega all the time and now that guy and I are very chatty.
What’s the exit strategy from this experiment, when a stranger begins saying too much?
If someone is telling you lots of things without context it becomes an uncomfortable conversation. This person isn’t being human with you, they’re just using you as an ear. In cities that can happen. People are very lonely. Listening to someone is an extraordinary gift and there are a lot of people in cities and they might take advantage of it if you seem like a listener.
I tend not to look for this realness when I’m in a situation where I can’t get away, when I’m on a bus or subway or plane ride. I’ll do this sitting on a park bench or at a café. If you have an out, then if the person launches into a monologue, you can say, “I’m sorry, I’m running late,” or “My phone just rang.”
On the other hand if somebody’s honest it also gives you an opportunity to empathize with them. You can engage with kindness and curiosity and see what happens.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Author Kio Stark is trying to convince people that the pleasures of talking to strangers outweigh the risks. Here, she outlines the benefits.
It makes you feel human “When you have even these very brief connections with strangers it is an affirmation of your existence. That is the social function of the meaningless things that we say to each other: ‘Hello,’ and ‘How are you doing?’ You’ve made it clear that you see and acknowledge each other as humans in this place.” (A butcher who loved to talk to customers in Stark’s neighbourhood put it this way about those who avoid contact with strangers, at all costs: “People don’t have to live like that, like we’re not all right here together.”)
It breaks the monotony of your commute “When you start looking around the world, looking people in the eye, saying hello, maybe having a longer conversation, you have to really be there. It can break up the routine where you get very interior in your own head,” said Stark. Turning your awareness outward means you’re not on autopilot but present in the moment.
It helps you be understood A number of sociological studies found that sometimes strangers understand us better than our friends and family. How? Sometimes, we explain things more clearly – and more freely – to strangers than to loved ones. Critical distance helps: “A stranger can listen to your feelings without having to live with them,” Stark writes.
It’s good for introverts “I have been told by a lot of people who consider themselves introverts that they actually enjoy talking to strangers, if they know that it’s brief and that they can get away any time. An aunt of mine works at a university and she really gets a kick out of it when there’s a building or repair project. She stops and asks what they’re working on. The question isn’t awkward and the answer is concrete.
It might give you something real Stark says it’s fun to get past the “membrane” of public politeness: “It’s when somebody sits down and you say, ‘How you doing?’ and they say, ‘I’m actually having the worst day.’ They’ve responded as if you actually care about their day. And you suddenly do.… When you get the story told to you and you’re seeing their face, that’s an intense way of getting to understand this inner life of someone else.”
It’s an antidote to fear While talking to strangers will probably not solve major geopolitical problems, it’s a start toward mutual respect. “There’s so much hatred going around in so many directions, so much suspicion of people who aren’t like us,” Stark said. “There is this tiny thing that everyone can do, which is spend more time getting to know people who aren’t like us and try to understand what it’s like to really be them. That extends your empathetic abilities, complicates your thinking about political situations and gives you more nuanced conversations. It’s not an abstract group of people; it’s someone you’ve had experiences with.”