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Like many people who grew up in America in the 1980s, I was raised to fear strangers.
“Stranger Danger” was all the rage in those days. Parental concern and humanity’s natural wariness towards strangers were supercharged by sensationalist media coverage and plummeting levels of social trust, which bloomed into a full-on moral panic.
Police officers, teachers, parents, religious leaders, politicians, media personalities, and child welfare organisations set aside their differences and worked together to spread the message – that interacting with a stranger could be putting them at risk.
While there is no doubt that some people do have traumatic experiences with strangers, “stranger danger” lacked any real statistical basis. Then, as now, the majority of sexual and violent crimes against children (and adults, for that matter) are committed by people known to the victim: relatives, neighbours and family friends. Abductions by non-family members – which include those where a child is taken by someone unknown to them – account for just 1% of the missing children cases reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the US.
But, it felt real, and therefore it was real. Stranger rhymed with danger, and the pair became inextricably linked.
Could this way of thinking, however, have affected our interactions in later life for many of us? Have we missed out on something valuable?
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Some social scientists believe teaching kids that literally everyone in the world they hadn’t met is dangerous may have been actively harmful. The political scientist Dietlind Stolle, from McGill University in Canada, argued that decades of this messaging may have damaged a whole generation’s ability to trust other people. This is problematic – trust being key to the functioning of many societies.
“How many social or economic opportunities do we miss by simply being afraid of strangers?” Stolle wondered. While I am not advocating for strangers to approach children, or vice versa, I do believe, as adults, we should think again about the benefits of safely speaking to strangers.
For several years, I researched why we don’t talk to strangers and what happens when we do for my book, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World. This effort put me in the company of anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, archeologists, urban designers, activists, philosophers, and theologians, plus hundreds of random strangers I talked to wherever I went.
While the etiquette might be to keep quiet on public transport, you might find speaking to a stranger makes your journey more interesting (Credit: Getty Images)
What I learned was this: we miss a lot by being afraid of strangers. Talking to strangers – under the right conditions – is good for us, good for our neighborhoods, our towns and cities, our nations, and our world. Talking to strangers can teach you things, deepen you, make you a better citizen, a better thinker, and a better person. It’s a good way to live. But it’s more than that. In a rapidly changing, infinitely complex, furiously polarised world, it’s a way to survive.
Joe Keohane is a New York City-based writer and author of The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World.
For more than 6,000 years, humans have lived in cities – a form of social organisation characterised by a superabundance of strangers. But only recently have psychologists begun studying what happens when we talk to all these faceless strangers we’re surrounded by every day.
In 2013, psychologists Gillian Sandstrom, at the University of Sussex in the UK and Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia, published the result of an experiment, in which they had 30 adults smile and talk to their barista at a coffee shop in Toronto, and 30 more make their transaction as efficient as possible. “People are remarkably pessimistic about almost every aspect of talking to strangers,” Sandstrom wrote, but that pessimism appears to be unwarranted. The study participants who interacted when buying their coffee reported feeling a stronger sense of belonging and an improved mood than those who didn’t talk to the stranger. The authors concluded, “the next time you need a little-pick-me-up, you might consider interacting with the Starbucks barista… thereby mining this readily available source of happiness”.
Plucking up the courage to strike a conversation with a stranger might feel tricky, considering it’s not normally the done thing for many of us. Behavioural scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder at the University of Chicago asked commuters to talk to strangers on mass transit, in taxis, and in waiting rooms – places where the social norm in Chicago is against talking. Understandably, most participants predicted these interactions would go poorly. Wary of violating a social norm, they worried the stranger would resent the intrusion and reject them, and their commutes would be even more unpleasant than they already were.
When the participants went out and actually engaged with people, however, they found the strangers were surprisingly receptive, curious and pleasant. “Commuters appeared to think that talking to a stranger posed a meaningful risk of social rejection,” Epley and Schroeder wrote. “As far as we can tell, it posed no risk at all.”
On the contrary, the participants who talked to strangers reported the conversations were enjoyable, interesting and lasted longer than they had predicted, and made their commutes more enjoyable. Epley and Schroeder add that this suggests a “profound misunderstanding of social interactions”, concluding “humans may be social animals but may not always be social enough for their own well-being”.
Lest these results be chalked up to Midwestern American friendliness, Epley and Schroeder conducted the same experiment in a less historically friendly locale, and had commuters chat with strangers on mass transit in London – a prospect many Londoners regard with a mix of scorn and horror (and a place where even eye contact is usually avoided). Yet Epley and Schroeder saw the same results. The conversations went remarkably well.
Since then the result has been repeated in other countries involving a diversity of participants. The findings of these studies have been remarkably consistent: many people dread talking to strangers, but when they do, they tend to come away feeling good: happier, less lonely, more optimistic, more empathetic, and with a stronger sense of belonging to their communities. Several experts, as well as members of the public who talk to strangers, told me that doing it actually makes them feel safer, providing ready affirmation that the people around them are well meaning.
Still, there are many reasons why people feel uncomfortable talking to strangers. People report being worried about violating a social norm, fearing that they will be bad at talking or won’t have anything to say, or being anxious about talking to someone from another group and being attacked or saying the wrong thing.
Talking to your barista could be one easy way to start opening up to strangers (Credit: Getty Images)
Many factors conspire to keep us from talking to one another. Certainly, smartphones have made it easier than ever to avoid interacting with the people in our immediate environment. And we might be naturally wary about approaching someone who looks untrustworthy to us, even if we have never met them. We prefer to cooperate with someone who looks similar to someone who we have trusted in the past rather than someone who looks like an untrustworthy former acquaintance.
So it comes as little surprise that when those fears fail to bear out, people are relieved. I felt it myself when I had positive interactions with strangers. “I think that relief might just be the feeling that we’re sold this message that the world is a scary place,” says Sandstrom. “And then you have a chat with some random person, and it goes well, and it’s like, ‘Maybe the world isn’t so bad after all’.”
This is no small thing. At a time when so many people feel lonely, estranged, excluded, disconnected, pessimistic, these findings are both useful and reassuring. Interacting with strangers, even in passing, can help us build or rebuild social networks, reconnect us with our communities, and shore up trust in the people around us. As a university student who participated in one of Sandstrom’s more recent experiments reported: “I felt like I had forgotten how to make friends, but this study reminded me that most people are friendly, and you just need to put yourself out there.”
As a straight white guy, I recognised from the outset that my interactions with strangers can be less fraught than they are for people who aren’t straight white guys. So, while researching my book, I made sure to talk to a wide diversity of people who had made a practice of talking to strangers. Despite their varied backgrounds and experiences, they mostly report the same positive effects as can be found in the research literature. But I wouldn’t presume to suggest that these interactions are the same for anyone, and in no way do I dismiss the concerns of people who have had traumatic experiences with strangers. Additionally, I strongly suggest men in my position be mindful of this when chatting with strangers themselves.
Sandstrom gives some more advice for talking to someone you don’t know; ask an open question to get them to talk first, and then reply with something you have in common – there’s a reason we default to talking about the weather.
But if you can, it is worth trying. Talking to strangers can affect you in deeper ways than you might expect and bring about many health benefits.
Be aware of how you might come across if you are considering talking to a stranger (Credit: Getty Images)
Talking to strangers can also make us wiser, more worldly, and more empathetic, says Harvard University professor and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, Danielle Allen. When she was teaching at the University of Chicago, Allen was repeatedly warned by colleagues to stay away from the poorer side of town. She believes that this “fear of strangers was actually eroding a lot of [her peers’] intellectual and social capacities”. She declined to stay away, and did some of her most admired work in those neighbourhoods. She has since devoted her career to fostering connections between people and groups that otherwise would not interact. “Real knowledge of what’s outside one’s garden cures fear,” Allen writes, “but only by talking to strangers can we come by such knowledge.”
This series will change the way you look at the world. Whether it’s the concept of “time”, “consumerism”, or even “creativity”, many of us tend to think about – and define – certain ideas in the ways we’ve been taught. But how did our conceptualisation of these big ideas evolve? How to Think About X searches for new ideas about our lives, the concepts that govern them and our future.
By talking to strangers, you get a glimpse of the mind-boggling complexity of the human species, and the infinite variety of human experiences. It’s a cliché, but you get to see the world from the eyes of another, without which wisdom is impossible.
But, it’s not easy. You will find yourself constantly having to revisit your assumptions about the world and your place in it, which can be difficult and disorienting, but also exhilarating, and even entertaining. It’s also how we grow as individuals, and hold together as societies. It’s how we come to know each other, and only in knowing each other can we ever hope to live together.
It’s ironic that after being raised to fear strangers, I now find them a source of hope. When these interactions go well – and they generally do – the positive perception of the stranger can generalise into better feelings about people. For me – and many of the respected experts and complete strangers I’ve spoken to – it comes down to a question of data. If I based all my perceptions of humanity on what is available through my phone or laptop, I would have a fantastically negative view of most other people. I would be paralysed by “stranger danger”, and I would feel fully justified in avoiding these louts, paranoids, hysterics, criminals, charlatans, rage-cases, and demagogues. Instead, however, I went out into the world, and talked to people. I base my perception of the world in large part on them, and as a result of talking to strangers, my outlook is a little more optimistic.
“I like humanity as a whole more because I talk to strangers,” Allen told me. As a black woman in America her interactions can be far more complicated than mine. But, still, when it comes to talking to strangers, she says, “the positives vastly outweigh the negatives”.
In 2018, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia, the US – historically one of the leading exponents of “stranger danger” messaging – finally retired the term. As Cal Walsh, an executive at the centre, explained to me at the time: “We’re trying to empower children to make safe and smart decisions, not scar them for life.”
Their decision has been mirrored by other child safety charities around the world.
What can I say? It’s a good start.

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