Kio Stark is the author of the novel Follow Me Down and the independent learning handbook Don’t Go Back to School. She writes, teaches, and speaks around the world about stranger interactions, independent learning, and relational technology. Her newest book, When Strangers Meet, is on sale now from our sister company, Simon & Schuster.
Talking to strangers is good for you. Even in a giant, anonymous metropolis like New York. Especially in a giant, anonymous metropolis like New York. A lot of us grew up associating strangers with a sense of danger and a feeling of fear. Of course we have to be smart about who we talk to, but thinking of everyone you don’t know as a potential danger is no way to live.
When you exchange a smile or a hello, or get into a brief conversation with a stranger, you’re creating something more powerful than you may realize. These greetings are moments of recognition and acknowledgement of shared humanity. Though it may occupy just a few seconds, that interaction can have genuine emotional resonance—a sense of connectedness and belonging. All that with someone you’ll never see again.
There is also a broader way in which talking to strangers is good for everyone. When we have those moments of acknowledgement or conversations with people who are different from us, we have to think of them, in that moment, as individuals, not as a part of a category. That difference may be race, ethnicity, gender, age, class, type of work, for example. At its best, an interaction with a stranger can expand our idea of who counts as human. That’s a huge thing in a divisive world, in an often provincial-feeling city.
Here are some ways to ease yourself into it:
One of the skills you need is being able to read people—to get a sense of who is open and who isn’t. Not everybody wants to be greeted, so it’s important to develop a sensitivity and respect to “interaction shields” like headphones and lack of eye contact and when people are in a hurry and generally respect those signals.
The first thing you can do is take a brief walk in a place where people aren’t in a hurry—think parks and residential streets—and say hello to everyone you pass by. Some people will smile, some will look askance, some won’t even notice. Be observant. What was different about the people who had these different reactions? What were they doing, were they already making eye contact, might they have felt threatened even by a greeting with the best intentions? Why?
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Start With A Smile
Next up, in a less contrived situation, simply look for people who are making eye contact, and smile at them. If they smile back try saying hello. This is all in passing so there’s no pressure to stop and no real pressure to return the glance.
If you’re waiting next to someone—streetcorners, elevators, bank lines—try saying hello there too. Again, only if you make eye contact. Even the mildest overture can feel like street harassment, or a threat, to someone who is hassled or made to feel unwelcome on a regular basis.
Be a “noticer” and give compliments. I tend to notice people’s shoes. Partly because I like shoes, and partly because they’re an innocuous thing you can notice about someone. People often have stories about their shoes and pause a moment to tell me about it. Again, the caveat, this is an opportunity for genuineness, not for paying someone a compliment about their shoes as a come-on.
So, next time you find yourself walking from here to there, take off your headphones and look around. The world is full of strangers. Smile and say hello to one.