Diana Levine/Random House
Joe Keohane, author of "The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World."

‘The Power of Strangers’: What we gain from listening to others

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

In a Q&A, journalist Joe Keohane shares insights from his book “The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World,” including making the case that humans are, in his words, “an ultra-cooperative species.” He argues that “there’s a pessimistic reading of human nature as xenophobic. There’s this idea that we were small groups of people who hated and feared strangers throughout our existence until, by some fluke, we ended up together in cities,” he says.

“The reality is a lot more complicated,” he adds. “Civilization would never have happened if our default mode was xenophobia.”

“I think you can make a better argument that our default mode is cooperation,” he continues. “When you come to understand that none of this – modern civilization – happens without an extraordinary capacity for talking to strangers and working with strangers and living with strangers, then you understand the power of that aspect of our personality.”

Why We Wrote This

What does true communication look like? Author Joe Keohane says it comes through in-person contact that enables people’s full complexity to be seen – opening up a path beyond dehumanizing labels.

Joe Keohane grew up in Boston in the 1980s and ’90s, when “stranger danger” served as a national parenting mantra to protect children from potential harm. But from watching his mom and dad, he absorbed a different life lesson about encounters with unfamiliar people.

“My parents have always talked to strangers, and I’ve seen how it’s been super-enriching and exciting and fun for them,” he says. “They’re well into their 70s, and they’re still making friends.”

The example of their openness inspired Mr. Keohane as he worked on his first book, “The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World.” True to that subtitle, Mr. Keohane advances the idea that showing greater interest in our fellow unknown Americans just might remedy the country’s loneliness epidemic and mend its fractured body politic.

Why We Wrote This

What does true communication look like? Author Joe Keohane says it comes through in-person contact that enables people’s full complexity to be seen – opening up a path beyond dehumanizing labels.

The veteran journalist traverses evolutionary biology, psychology, theology, and anthropology as he seeks to counter the stubborn perception of humankind as a hopeless collection of warring tribes. In reality, he writes, we belong to “an ultra-cooperative species.” He travels to Los Angeles, St. Louis, London, and Helsinki to learn from experts in the art of bonding with strangers, and armed with their advice, he sets out to turn random interactions into meaningful moments.

Mr. Keohane, a former features director at Medium, spoke to the Monitor from New York, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on attitudes toward strangers, the value of listening in a culture of talking, and how even fleeting conversations with passersby can reaffirm our shared humanity. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

You’re clearly fond of talking with strangers. What effect did the pandemic lockdowns have on you?

Research has shown that it’s really beneficial to have interactions with strangers. It helps us feel like we belong to a place, helps us feel connected and less lonely and happier. So having spent the previous two years before the coronavirus randomly talking to people all the time while researching the book, I missed that sense of adventure. When you talk to strangers, you never know where the conversations are going to go. But they almost invariably go somewhere interesting and unexpected, and I really missed the loss of variety.

How did you and your fellow New Yorkers cope?

There was the initial panic where everyone just ran away from each other. But then, once people settled into the routine of living during COVID-19, you started to see people making more of an effort to raise their eyebrows and say “Hi” and wave, and find ways to show that they see the other person and they’re not afraid of the other person, that they’re only keeping their distance out of respect.

There’s a lot of research about what keeps us from talking to strangers, and there’s a big fear that you won’t know what to talk about. During the coronavirus, especially in New York, it bound everyone together. Everyone had this thing in common. So in one way, there was a barrier raised against interaction – you couldn’t get close to each other. But the pandemic also lowered the barrier and made for a certain intimacy that I found reassuring and inspiring. It made me feel good to see people in this extreme situation making the effort to be like, “Hi, I hope we’re all going to be OK.”

Even before the pandemic, there were growing concerns that relying on technology to communicate – especially among teenagers and young adults – has stunted our social skills. How much does our digital immersion contribute to an aversion to strangers? 

One of the interesting things I found was a lot of psychologists who teach in colleges and universities reported that they see students who react to the prospect of talking to strangers with panic and terror. They’re so accustomed to conducting all their communications through digital platforms that they’ve lost a key social skill. There’s also a mental health component. Loneliness rates, which are sky-high for everybody right now, are highest among 18- to 22-year-olds, and the hypothesis of researchers is that it’s because they’re not having in-person contact as much as other generations did.

So technology definitely plays a large part, and I don’t think it’s specific to young people. The entire society is seeing its social skills erode. The good news is that the research shows that these interactions tend to be much easier and much more positive than we expect – we expect them to go very badly, we expect to be rejected. But by and large, people are receptive to interacting with strangers. Once they start having conversations, they find they enjoy it.

 

Penguin Random House

What are basic ways we can start to rebuild our social aptitude?

First of all, pay attention. Look at people, notice people, think about what’s happening around you, take your earbuds out. That will open you up to a world of interaction. 

In those interactions we have that are scripted – the ones where we say “How you doin’?” and the other person says “Good, how you doin’? – no information is exchanged, we’ve not connected. So when you find yourself in those situations, just be sincere and be specific. Maybe you notice something or there’s something you’re both doing – maybe you’re waiting in line – and you can comment on it. Just making a statement about something you’re both experiencing simultaneously is really effective. 

You write about approaching conversations with strangers as “a collaboration, not a competition.” What do we gain if we don’t try to control the exchange?

When you have to follow the conversation wherever it goes, the benefit is that it makes it impossible to pretend that this is not a complex person in front of you. It robs you of the luxury of simplifying the life and the motivation of others. That’s healthy, and that leads to wisdom and helps people be more productive citizens of democracy.

So many problems we’re facing are dehumanization problems – partisanship, transphobia, racism – and only through contact can we alleviate dehumanization. You can read a lot of books, you can listen to podcasts – that’ll help. But the research shows us there’s nothing more effective for reducing dehumanization than in-person contact. And it’s because this person you’re talking to is going to come at you with their full complexity, and you have to deal with the fact that their reality might be different from your reality.

You point out that one key to talking with strangers is, in fact, listening to them. On a broader level, how could that help reduce the country’s political tensions?

There is research that shows the feeling of not being listened to can lead to extreme political beliefs. And when you hear how people who feel estranged and alienated from the culture talk about their relation to the whole [country], the point that comes up over and over again is, “No one’s listening to me.” So demonstrating that you’re listening can turn some of the heat down. It also takes away a lot of your blind spots if you do it with enough curiosity and openness. That’s valuable, especially in a time when partisans have turned it into a virtue to not listen.

You make the case that human beings, for all the havoc they’ve inflicted on each other throughout time, have figured out how to more or less get along. What solace can we take from that in this polarized moment?

I think there’s a pessimistic reading of human nature as xenophobic. There’s this idea that we were small groups of people who hated and feared strangers throughout our existence until, by some fluke, we ended up together in cities. The reality is a lot more complicated. Civilization would never have happened if our default mode was xenophobia.

I’m looking out the window of my office in New York, where there are 10 million people, and people are exchanging greetings and helping each other and not bumping into each other. This is a very cooperative species, and it gets a bad rap for being xenophobic and savage. It certainly can be those things, but I think you can make a better argument that our default mode is cooperation. When you come to understand that none of this – modern civilization – happens without an extraordinary capacity for talking to strangers and working with strangers and living with strangers, then you understand the power of that aspect of our personality.

Does that give you hope that Americans can bridge their differences?

Putting two strangers in a room is not going to solve all the really sticky issues. But what it will do is show that we can have a conversation, we might kind of like each other, maybe we can fix some potholes together. And then maybe after we fix some potholes, we can talk about something else we can work on. We have to rebuild trust. It’s a lot of work, and as a nation, we have to decide if we’re going to do it. I’m not sure if it will be done. But I’m optimistic it can be done.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to ‘The Power of Strangers’: What we gain from listening to others
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Author-Q-As/2021/0817/The-Power-of-Strangers-What-we-gain-from-listening-to-others
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe