True, most strangers are not dangerous. But it’s not easy to communicate with them without context. In any case, we should not be afraid of other people. You just need to learn to understand when to be friendly and when not.
We put up labels that help our brains quickly form an opinion about another person. We automatically enter strangers into the categories: man – woman, our own – a stranger, friend – enemy, young – old. We do not perceive the other person as a person. Thinking is so easy and convenient. But this is a path to bias.
Why communication with strangers is important for us
We often tell our neighbors the phrase “How are you?” or “Nice day.” Agree, there is no benefit either from this question or from the information received. But why are we doing this?
It helps to feel like a part of society.
Psychological research has shown that most people communicate more honestly and openly with strangers than with close friends and family. They feel that strangers understand them better.
Communication with strangers is a special form of intimacy that gives us what we need and what our friends and family cannot.
Communication with people from outside the usual circle is very important. First, it is fast interaction that has no consequences. Agree, it’s easy to be honest with someone you will never see again.
Secondly, when communicating with loved ones, we always expect them to understand us without words, to guess about our thoughts. With strangers, you have to start from scratch: tell the whole story from the very beginning, explain who these people are, about whom you are telling, what you think of them. Therefore, sometimes strangers really understand us much better.
It helps to establish emotional contact with people.
When communicating with strangers, you unwittingly become a participant in their emotional experiences. A casual conversation about the weather can turn into deep interaction. It seems strange that we can establish personal contact with a stranger. But such quick interactions can cause us empathy, emotional resonance. Sociologists call this phenomenon fleeting intimacy.
It seems easy to walk up to a stranger on the street and say hello, but it just seems that way. Where is it appropriate? How should communication go? What’s the best way to end the conversation? This is only a small part of the questions that need to be dealt with.
Learning to feel confident in the company of people you have never met before will help the experiments that Kio Stark advises his students to go through.
If you decide to do your research, follow these simple rules:
- Take notes: keep them in mind, write them down in a notebook, share observations on a blog or social media.
- Respect other people and watch your behavior. If you see that a person is not inclined to communicate, do not press on him and do not be intrusive.
- Be aware of cultural differences. It is not recommended to conduct an experiment in a country that you do not know well enough. For example, in Denmark people are usually not inclined to communicate with strangers: a Dane would rather pass his bus stop than ask another person to clear the passage. In other countries – Egypt, Georgia – it is considered impolite to ignore another person, so do not be surprised that when you ask for directions, you may receive an invitation to visit.
- All studies are arranged in ascending order of problem complexity. Experiment # 1 is a warm-up, and it is better to start with it, even if you are interested in another experiment.
Experiment # 1. Watch and Learn
You will need a notebook. Spend one hour in a public place where you most likely won’t bump into acquaintances. It can be a park, cafe, train or any other place where you can linger and watch people who are also in no hurry.
Pick a good spot where you can sit and watch a wide variety of people from a relatively close distance. Go out of the internet, turn off all devices for one hour. Part of this ordeal is being fully present. Then take a look around.
- Describe the setting. Where are you at? What’s interesting about this place? What do people usually do here? What’s unusual? What kind of people are next to you?
- Take notes. What other people look like, what they are wearing, what they do and what they don’t, how they interact with each other. If there are too many people around you, you can pick some of the most interesting ones.
- Come up with life stories of these people. Include specific details that inspire your story. So, for example, if you are sure that one of them is rich, or homeless, or shy, or a tourist, or lives nearby – think about what led you to such thoughts. Try to understand where these assumptions come from.
Experiment # 2: Say Hello!
Take a walk in a crowded place: a park with paths, along the embankment, the main street of the city. Determine for yourself the optimal distance that you need to walk (it is desirable that the walk takes from five to ten minutes). There should be a lot of pedestrians around you. Go slowly and start experimenting.
- Your task is to say “Hello” to every person you pass by. To each of them. Don’t be afraid to look them in the eye and don’t worry if someone didn’t hear you or deliberately ignored you. This is just a warm-up.
- The next step is not just to say hello, but also to add your observations to the greeting, which will help to start a conversation. They shouldn’t have anything personal, but they should be evidence of social acceptance. For example: “Nice dog”, “You have a wonderful hat” or “It’s cold today.” Such phrases help to establish contact and make social connections.
Evaluate each of these microinteractions carefully. You may make a few people feel uncomfortable, but don’t stop until you’ve talked to everyone. What happens when you greet people? They are smiling? Are they laughing? Are they embarrassed? Do they look unusual? Telling the companion what happened?
If you’re nervous, you can bring a friend with you. But this friend doesn’t have to say anything. He is there only to make you feel safe.
Experiment # 3. Get Lost
This experiment is a sequence of requests, each of which requires more active participation. Try to go through each step. Keep a pen and paper close at hand and hide your smartphone away.
- First, ask someone to show you the way.
- If the person stops and points you in a direction, ask them to draw a map.
- If he drew a map for you, ask for his phone number in case you can call him if you get lost.
- If he gives you a phone number, you call him.
Surprisingly, most people leave their number with ease. For many years, Kyo Stark conducted this exercise in her classes, and during all the time only one student decided to call.
Be careful when choosing a starting point and destination, it may not be possible the first time to choose a pair that works as it should. It shouldn’t be quite simple, otherwise you won’t need a map. But also not too complicated for a passer-by to explain to you.
This exercise was invented by Stark almost 10 years ago, and it is a little more difficult to perform in this era of smartphones. You must give the plausible impression that you cannot navigate without a hand-drawn map or list of directions.
Experiment # 4. Ask a Question
People talk if you give them the opportunity. They speak when they are listened to . In this experiment, you have to ask the stranger a disarmingly personal question and then just listen. By “disarmingly personal,” Stark means an unexpectedly intimate, personal question about something really important. This should be a question that immediately engages the person in communication.
Her favorite question is “What are you afraid of?” Several people respond with something about spiders or mice and avoid the emotional challenge. But most people speak from the bottom of their hearts and will tell you about the fear of death, loss, failure, loneliness . They tell amazing things. Even more amazing, they are ready to share this with you.
The technique works as follows. You should bring video or audio equipment with you (your smartphone will do as well) to give legitimacy and some logic to the invasion. The camera is a little trick that gives you the power to ask questions, and at the same time, a mediator that helps people speak more openly.
Approach a person who is in no hurry and ask if you can ask him a question on camera. Some people will agree to answer your question, but not on camera, which is good. After all, the meaning of our experiments is in conversations, not in recording.
Start recording, ask a question. And then be silent. If you are asked to clarify a question, repeat, but do not give any rough answers. Your job is to listen. If you see that the person feels free, you can ask clarifying questions, but do not rush. Let the person fill in the gap on their own.
Experiment # 5. Be an outsider
This is the most risky experiment. Pick a place where you don’t fit in, where you are in the minority. You have to stand out, be noticeably out of place. Perhaps by race, gender, ethnicity, age, appearance.
Your goal is simply to observe what people are doing, how they react to your presence. You can try to draw attention to yourself and see what happens.
Of course, you shouldn’t put yourself in danger, so don’t choose a location where you are most likely to face open aggression. You may have an enlightening experience. But just in case, prepare yourself, as there is a possibility that after this experiment you will not feel the best way.
But this is an important experience in terms of empathy: you will feel for yourself how a person feels when they do not notice him or do not want to see him. No one wants you to constantly experience this, but when you feel it for yourself at least once, you will be able to look at the world differently.