Why it’s important we interact with strangers

David Brancaccio and Erika Soderstrom Sep 2, 2021
Heard on:
There are various advantages and dynamics of interacting with strangers, according to journalist Joe Keohane's book.

Why it’s important we interact with strangers

David Brancaccio and Erika Soderstrom Sep 2, 2021
Heard on:
There are various advantages and dynamics of interacting with strangers, according to journalist Joe Keohane's book.

When it comes to introverted and extroverted personalities, journalist Joe Keohane believes he’s somewhere in the middle – not extremely outgoing and not super reserved, either. But when he found himself withdrawing more, he wanted to learn why. “With my phone, I could have feasibly gone the rest of my life, you know privileged person that I am, without ever talking to a stranger again, in person.” he said. And that, “Freaked me out a little bit.”

His new book, “The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World,” dives into the importance of talking with people we don’t know and why it can be difficult. Keohane spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio about the personal and professional advantages of speaking with strangers. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: Now, people who aren’t especially outgoing, who don’t feel they draw a lot of energy from other people, have seen some benefits in working from home during all this. Not interacting with often annoying people. But soon some of us, virus permitting, will be asked to go back to working on company property again. You think we could learn, those of us who’ve gotten out of the habit or never had the habit, we can learn to interact with people we don’t know?

Joe Keohane: Yeah, I do. I do. I think there’s an argument to be made that this is an intrinsic skill to humans that without developing the ability to talk to strangers and cooperate with strangers, civilization doesn’t happen. So it’s something that’s in us, but I think that social skill or that suite of social skills has definitely been eroded first by kind of smartphone culture, and after that, certainly by the coronavirus.

Brancaccio: Coronavirus, smartphone culture, but maybe even just the fact that you do a lot of your commerce online and it just comes to your house, you never have to leave.

Keohane: Yeah, I think that erodes it too. I think there has been a pronounced withdrawal from the company of other people over the last, I don’t know, 10 – 15 years or so. Which has been exacerbated by the ability to push a button on your computer and have whatever you need brought to your house by a faceless person whose life you never encounter, you never come into contact with in any meaningful way. And I think yeah, I think that’s that’s definitely eroded our social skills as well.

Brancaccio: I kind of know the answer to this, because I’ve read your book. But I mean, you’d think you Joe would be one of these gregarious glad handers. That’s not really what you’re naturally like?

Keohane: I think I’m in the middle of the spectrum. I was definitely raised by people who talk to strangers all the time. My parents were just notorious. They were great at it. So I got to see growing up the benefits of doing it, which is they just made friends their whole life. And they had, they had a hell of a lot of fun doing it. For me, I definitely dabbled in it over the course of my life. But I think I’m kind of in the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum, generally. The problem was, I think, due to a number of factors, I found myself stopping. I found myself withdrawing. And that was sort of the genesis of the book was this realization that I was just no longer talking to strangers. And with my phone, I could have feasibly gone the rest of my life, you know privileged person that I am, without ever talking to a stranger again, in person. And that freaked me out a little bit. But that kind of started me on the quest to understand what had happened.

“Stranger danger”

Brancaccio: It’s also the world’s changing, right? I mean, if you talk to a stranger, you don’t want to be thought of as a creep on the make. There’s that problem.

Keohane: Yeah, for sure, for sure. I mean, this is an important point to make here is that despite the propaganda that’s been leveled against children for about 20 or 30 years at this point, that strangers are inherently dangerous, the vast majority of major crimes are actually committed by people we know, people known to the victim. So strangers are actually less dangerous than than acquaintances and family members than friends. So you need to keep that sort of data in mind when you go out there. But certainly, this is a fraught moment in society where a lot of groups feel they’re having a lot of – there’s a lot of friction between groups, right? Political groups, groups that encompass gender, race, things like that. So I think people are anxious about making connections across those sorts of boundaries. They’re definitely anxious about coming across badly.

Brancaccio: Well, you’re also just worried that it seems like a nice person, let’s strike up a conversation, it turns out that their values seem 180 degrees from yours. That can happen.

Keohane: Yeah, that can definitely happen. I mean, I think a lot of what I learned in reporting this, which involves spending time with a group that literally trained Democrats and Republicans to be able to tolerate the sight of each other across the table and have a civil conversation, this was a group called Braver Angels. I think we need to resist the tendency to dismiss people who we disagree with. I think we’ve gotten pretty lazy about one another. I think we’ve gotten pretty incurious about one another. I think it’s really important if we’re going to make any headway in terms of kind of rebuilding national politics and mending a lot of social divides, we need to discipline ourselves when we hear something we disagree with. To try to understand what brought the person to that idea, right? Instead of just being like nope, done, cutting this off, walking away. You know, indulge your curiosity a bit, a little bit. Be humble enough to ask and you may not like the answer, you know, you may disagree with the person and most likely you will continue to disagree with them. But I think there’s a real benefit in understanding that communication is possible that you can have a conversation that perhaps the person’s a little more complicated than you might have given them credit for, as a member of whatever group your group is presently at odds with.

Brancaccio: And indeed, you cite some surveys that show how both sides of the political divide hold inaccurate stereotypes about the other side.

Keohane: Yeah, the first body off the back of the truck at times of like radical polarization, like the present, is the idea that the people on the other side are complex, fully human individuals such as us, you know. We give ourselves a lot of credit on our side of the divide that we’re very special. We have you know, we’re very individual. We have agency. We have freewill. But the other side, we tend to view as slightly subhuman cogs in a larger machine. When you do make a point of connecting with someone across the divide, it makes it much more difficult to maintain an oversimplified perception of who they are. That doesn’t solve our problems by any stretch. But I think that needs to happen first before anything else can be done.

Connection in a big city

Brancaccio: I really like that story in the book about the young man. I think he graduated in somewhere in upstate New York. He comes to the big city, Manhattan, and you spot him down at the big park Washington Square Park with a sign up, what’s he up to?

Keohane: Yeah, a guy named, I may be getting his name wrong, Jonah Berger or Judah Berger. I was walking through Manhattan and I was on a real jag of talking to people and when you do that, you get the sense of synchronicity that’s really weird, where things just present themselves to you in a way that they didn’t previous to this. So I’m walking through Washington Square Park, and I see this kid sitting at a table, and he has a sign and the sign says, “Where are you going?” And there were two chairs at the table. And I just sat on a bench for a while and I watched. And people were wandering over. And they seemed to be having real conversations with this kid. So you know, I get a little bit of time. And I studied for a bit and I went over and talked to him. And he was – I was like, why are you doing this and he’s like, ‘I felt I wasn’t meeting enough people. You know, I came here from a small town. I’m in the center of the universe as far as I’m concerned. I’m in Rome at the height of the Roman Empire and I wanted to meet new people, I wanted to take advantage of the city. And I needed to figure out a way to do it.’ So that’s what this was, he set up this table, and he just allowed – he just presented himself as a conversational partner. And it was really profound for him. It made him feel like he belonged in a really complicated city. This is before COVID, obviously. But I love the fact that he’s he sought that out.

Brancaccio: Now, in other guises in your career, Joe, you’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs, and you think of them all as outgoing 24-hour party people, but that’s just not true. Some entrepreneurs, right, are introverted, bit shy and you met some who profited by learning to overcome that in terms of being willing to, to meet people they wouldn’t normally.

Keohane: Yeah, I love that, you know, I was an executive editor at Entrepreneur magazine for several years. And I realized it at the time, and this is before I did the book. But I kept hearing it from entrepreneurs I spoke to where they had a lot of anxiety about talking to other people. And they knew that they had to force themselves to do it, they had to learn how to do it. And when they did it, it opened a lot of doors for them. But one in particular was a woman who, she’s become a very successful construction supervisor. And she said she was a really shy kid. And her father used to force her to call the pizza guy, right? Because he was really uncomfortable talking to the pizza guy, and he said, you’re going to call the pizza guy on Fridays. You’re going to ask him what we should get, you’re gonna have a conversation with them. And she credits that to her ability to develop the kind of sophisticated social skills that permit her to work on a major job site.

When technology gets in the way

Brancaccio: It’s an important skill, because you do meet people, not all them younger people, who will go out of their way to just press a button on their phone, to, you know, order something or make something happen, rather than pick up the phone. Or rather than get out there. It seems almost like it’s getting worse.

Keohane: Yeah, I think it probably is, I think COVID exacerbated it for sure. I heard this a lot from college professors, that they were shocked by the difficulty that young people had in meeting one another and making friends and talking to people in person. And I think, yeah, I think a lot of that is the function of the phone, that you just don’t need to work those muscles as much. And talking to strangers is a complicated interaction, right? Like, this is why it’s good for us in the same way that exercise is good for us. You have to pay attention, you have to listen, you have to wonder about the person, you have to be mindful of what you’re saying and how you’re coming across, you have to think of what you’re going to say. Psychologists have found that it is actually cognitively demanding to talk to strangers. But they’ve also found that it can make us smarter, it can actually improve our cognitive function by doing it regularly. And this is something that I think does come naturally to us. And the studies show that when young people do set out to have these interactions, it goes quite well. They’re much better at it than they give themselves credit for.

Brancaccio: So you still having these interactions, Joe? I mean, you know, when you sent in the manuscript for the book, you didn’t, you didn’t wrap up your meeting strangers?

Keohane: [Laughs] I was just done with humanity. No, I think I integrated it into my life. You know, you gotta, I live in New York. You know, COVID is a real concern, obviously. You got to be mindful of other people’s differing levels of caution. But I do it all the time. I mean, I really make a point of putting more of myself into kind of scripted day to day interaction. So if I buy something at the bodega, I’ll chat with the guy at the bodega. You know, I’m very careful not to make a total nuisance of myself. I’m not hanging around, like telling my life story to this guy, when there are 10 people fuming behind me. But just a little bit, you know, when the person asks you how you are, like, you know, tell them, ask how they are, you know, ask how they’re doing and be curious about them. And really, you know, mean it when you ask someone how they are. And I find that it really, you know, the research that that has been conducted over the last 15 years has definitely been my experience. I come away, feeling a little happier, a little more connected to the place that I live, a little more optimistic about people. It definitely became part of my routine. And I think, you know, it did the impossible, which is it made me a more optimistic person, which is something I would never, you know, never claim to, to be in the past.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.