Big Ideas

The Power of Talking With Strangers

Author Kio Stark's new book isn't specifically about networking, but her insights apply.

KioKio Stark was in her late 20s before she realized that not everybody shares her obsession with talking to strangers. “That was when I really started to wonder about it,” said Stark, who teaches graduate classes in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. Not only did she begin to observe and document her conversations, she asked herself questions like: “Why do I do this and why don’t others?” and “Why do I feel like I’m doing something positive?”

Stark also began to apply the lessons of sociology, social psychology, and urban design to the questions, which led her to the conclusions that she shares in her book When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You. For example, conversations with strangers create a kind of fleeting intimacy — “a shimmer of connection” — that can contribute to fulfilling our basic human need for sociability. And by talking to strangers, we release them from broad categories and see them as individuals. “And that’s an incredibly powerful thing,” Stark writes. “When you experience someone as an individual, it opens up your idea of who counts as human.”

Is there anything in your research that would suggest that it’s true that we are interacting less with the people around us?

I like that you phrased that question ‘Is it true?’ Because there’s so much conversation about the idea that we’re interacting less with strangers. I think that maybe to some small degree, we are. The place where I really see us deprived of potential interactions is when we’re waiting. When we’re waiting, we look at our phones now. We used to have nothing to do and look around and go over our list of things to do in our head. That kind of waiting often led to conversation.

People say, “Everyone has their headphones, everyone is buried in their phone.” I see people buried in their phone in situations where they would have been reading before. They may well be reading [now]. Reading a newspaper on the sub-way. Sitting on a park bench reading a book. The only thing that’s different is there’s nothing for anyone to comment on, because they can’t see what you’re reading. Nobody can say, “Oh, what does the paper say about that thing that happened last night?” Or, “What book are you reading?”

Have you thought about your research in terms of the strangers that you interact with at conferences?

What’s funny is, for somebody who loves talking to strangers as much as I do, I feel awkward at conferences. Because there’s this thing of, you’re going to see people more than once. So if you have an awkward interaction, you can walk away from it, but then you run into that person again and it will remind you that you felt funny. I don’t mean some terrible interaction, I mean getting snubbed or something like that. 

I get nervous at conferences. I try really hard to introduce myself to people when I’m in a one-on-one situation or there’s not that many people. Like if you get to a breakout session early and there’s a couple other people there. I hold out my hand to shake and introduce myself. It doesn’t have to go any further than that. Suddenly you’ve made the room a place where people are people. I think that that’s something you can do both to make yourself comfortable and to make connections. Some of which are momentary connections, and some of which may go somewhere. A lot of people at conferences who I introduced myself to in an elevator or the beginning of the session when no one else was there — we ended up running into each other again and really talking.

One of the core ideas in your book is that talking to strangers matters.

I really think it does make a difference in the world. We tend to think of people in categories in the sort of shortcut way where we’re increasingly suspicious of each other. In America, there’s a lot of hostility towards each other — particularly people who are different in certain ways.

I think that coming upon people as individuals and really seeing them that way and, if you have the time, having an encounter with them in a way that wants to understand them as a specific person can be quite … the word transforming gets thrown a lot, but I really believe in it in this case. I think that it matters in the workplace. It matters anywhere that you come into contact with a lot of strangers. The book is not about networking, but everything in it can be applied to that for sure.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.