The Power of Strangers (Book Summary)

What’s it about?

The Power of Strangers (2021) explores why we don’t talk to strangers – and why we definitely should. It looks at how humans evolved to communicate and collaborate with strangers and reveals why our modern alienation from one another is such a problem.

About the author

Joe Keohane is a journalist who has worked as a senior editor at MediumEsquireEntrepreneur, and Hemispheres. His writing – on subjects as diverse as travel, social sciences, business, and tech – has appeared in New York magazine, the Boston Globe, the New YorkerWiredBoston magazine, and the New Republic.

Our apprehension of strangers is driving us apart:

If you grew up in the West, you were undoubtedly taught to be afraid of strangers. Perhaps your parents warned you not to accept candy from strangers. Perhaps your school required you to watch educational movies about the dangers of talking to strangers.

Strangers have long piqued our interest. We’ve viewed outsiders as hazardous agents of deceit and instability since people dwell in villages. Fear remained throughout the development of villages, cities, and nations. For being distinct from the majority – for being different – entire populations have been persecuted.

This dread of strangers is still alive and well today. A sign placed by the local sheriff in Harris County, Georgia, can be seen if you take a road trip there. “Our citizens have concealed guns,” it says. If you kill someone, we may retaliate by killing you. There is only one jail and 356 graves in the city. Have a great time!”

The problem is that this pervasive anxiety is isolating us more than ever before.

In today’s cultural and political alienation context, our dread of those who appear to be different from us can be witnessed. Take, for example, the often-discussed issue of immigration. There is substantial anti-immigration sentiment in many countries worldwide; fear and anger are frequently directed toward that fleeing war, poverty, or climate change – or simply seeking better economic possibilities.

Hard, polarized political positions go hand in hand with this problem, exacerbating our fear of others. Instead of debating with those who hold opposing viewpoints, we regard them as mortal enemies. We separate ourselves into silos and become increasingly estranged.

We’ve gotten dangerously alone against this backdrop. In particular, loneliness has reached epidemic proportions in the United Kingdom and the United States. And it’s not a little issue: loneliness can be just as harmful to our health as smoking.

But what’s the point of it all? There is a slew of issues to consider.

First, there’s more mobility: we never build long-term ties with our neighbors because we move around so much. Then there’s globalization: we’re more likely to speak with a customer service representative from another country than our neighborhood greengrocer. Finally, technology’s rise: we frequently communicate with people digitally without ever meeting them in person.

We expect strangers to dislike us and underestimate them:

Assume you’re in a crowded metro car. What do you do to pass the time? You’re undoubtedly staring at your phone, just like everyone else.

It’s a common sight in cities across the Western United States. Even though others surround us, we rarely interact with them. We remain mute even in instances where speaking a word would seem natural — for example, when standing next to someone admiring artwork at an art gallery.

What is the reason for this? Researchers have discovered two key reasons: we aren’t sure if individuals want to talk to us, and we aren’t sure if we want to approach them.

Let’s start with the assumption that strangers are unlikely to like us. Erica Boothby, a psychologist, supervised an experiment in which participants were instructed to interact with strangers in various circumstances. A lab, a collegiate housing, and a personal development workshop were among them.

Researchers discovered a phenomenon known as the liking gap. That is, respondents thought they loved strangers more than strangers liked them back. Even when a talk went well, participants assumed the other person didn’t genuinely like them. It’s easy to see how this belief prevents us from interacting with people we don’t know.

Researchers Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder conducted another study in 2013 in which participants were invited to converse with strangers on public transportation, in taxis, and waiting rooms. Epley and Schroeder discovered something striking. Participants expected nothing from strangers and were pleasantly surprised when they found them pleasant and fascinating.

Strangers are typically seen as difficulties by those who live in major cities. They are impediments in our way, things to go past. We don’t see everyone in the subway or on the street as fully human. It’s what’s known as the issue of the lower minds. We presume strangers are less intelligent than we are because we can’t see inside other people’s thoughts. As a result, we tend to underestimate them.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. According to Epley and Schroeder, participants found it easy to initiate up talks with strangers. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world until they started conversing. That’s because it is, as we’ll see in the following paragraphs.

It was an evolutionary imperative to collaborate with strangers:

Bonobos and chimps have a similar appearance. These apes, on the other hand, have highly distinct personalities. Unfamiliar members of their species regularly kill chimps because they are hostile. To put it another way, they’re xenophobic.

Bonobos, on the other hand, are the polar opposite. They’ll go to great lengths to interact with strangers. Experiments have shown that they prefer to speak with strangers over monkeys they are familiar with. Xenophilia is a trait shared by bonobos.

Homo sapiens, like chimps, can be dangerously xenophobic. On the other hand, humans are more closely related to bonobos than chimps. We’ve genuinely improved our communication and collaboration abilities. We had to succeed as a species.

The main takeaway is that cooperating with strangers was an evolutionary necessity.

Our forefathers walked out of the forests and onto the plains about 2.5 million years ago as the climate got drier and cooler. They had to learn how to hunt large animals and defend themselves from predators such as wild cats and hyenas while they were there. Humans had little choice but to join together to survive, and in the process, complex group dynamics formed.

Rather than fighting, hunter-gatherers began to interact and share information with other groups. After all, being at war all of the time made no sense. To begin with, the invention of the throwing-spear made entering another group’s territory more dangerous. Second, you lose access to information if you kill strangers. For example, how do you negotiate rough terrain and escape hungry animals without local guides?

To summarize, early humans were more peaceful than we might imagine. As a result, their communities were shaped. Our forefathers wandered and mingled with various peoples rather than living in well-defined tribes with well-defined territory. These amorphous organizations grew in size over time. And while they did so, ideas spread widely among them — concepts that were critical to our species’ survival.

“People were far more cosmopolitan than the term ‘tribesmen’ suggests,” anthropologist Eleanor Leacock says. We’re hardwired to interact and connect with “strangers” deep down. It’s advantageous to both them and us.

We feel happier and more connected when we talk to strangers:

Social ties are the most important aspect of people’s pleasure and well-being. According to numerous studies, people who have healthy connections are healthier in both mind and body. Unfortunately, persons who lack strong social ties are more prone to suffer from various diseases, including mental illness and heart disease.

Traditionally, these studies have focused on close friendships or family interactions. But what about relationships with people you don’t know? What difference do they make, if any?

Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn conducted a study on the impacts of conversing with strangers in 2013. They gathered 60 adults in front of a Starbucks – 30 males and 30 women. The volunteers were then divided into two groups: half were told to communicate with baristas, while the other half were urged to keep talks as brief as possible.

Both groups went back to the psychologists for further evaluation. And their testimonies corroborated Sandstrom and Dunn’s initial suspicions. People who spoke with their barista left with a better mood, a stronger sense of belonging, and overall satisfaction with their Starbucks experience.

Though it’s long been known that increasing social connections makes people happier, Sandstrom and Dunn discovered that even minor social interactions boost our happiness.

Sandstrom and Dunn undertook yet another experiment to establish their thesis. Participants were given red and black clickers and told to click the red one when they saw a “strong tie” – such as a friend or family member – and the black one when they saw a “weak tie” – someone they knew in passing.

It showed out that those who had a lot of “weak ties” were generally happy. They felt a stronger sense of belonging to their communities in particular. These sensations were amplified on days with little interactions, such as when a participant spent most of her time at home and only went out shopping or coffee. In other words, on days when we’re lonely, weak ties can be even more nourishing.

So, what’s the result of it all? We’re social beings who require constant interaction. Chat with your local barista or hot dog vendor if you need a fast burst of happiness!

To make a connection with strangers, start with small talk and gradually deviate from the script:

Assume you’re in front of a fruit vendor in a street market. You’re about to put money down on a basket of strawberries. The vendor takes your money and prepares to give you your change. You decide to strike up a conversation after learning that talking to strangers can improve your mood and help you feel more connected to your community.

But you can’t seem to come up with the correct words. Where do you even begin? What direction do you want to take in the conversation? Fortunately, there are tried-and-true social interaction recipes.

First and foremost, don’t overlook small conversations. Sure, you’re not having a deep, profound conversation, but that’s not the goal. The goal of a small chat is to develop a connection. It’s similar to a greeting custom.

Take, for example, how the English discuss the weather. Some argue it’s a sign of a stagnant and unimaginative society. It’s the polar opposite. Talking about the weather is a technique for many Brits to overcome their natural reserve. It’s an icebreaker, and it’ll help them move on to more significant topics.

So you’ve started with a small conversation, but what’s next? What steps can you take to get into the more meaningful territory? So, you’ll have to deviate from the script. Turn off your autopilot and respond in a surprise and personal way.

Let’s pretend a cashier at the checkout asks, “How are you today?” You could add something like, “Well, I’d say about a 7 out of 10 – and you?” instead of just saying, “I’m OK, thanks, how are you?” That way, you can show that you’re not just mouthing words at random. Instead, you’ve attentively analyzed and responded to their query. This communicates to the other person that you are a complicated, thinking human being, not a machine.

When you deviate from the script, it’s sometimes best to be upfront about it. For example, if you wanted to start a discussion on the train, you could remark, “I know it’s not kosher to chat to people on public transit, but…” You’ll put the other person at ease by demonstrating this level of self-consciousness.

It would help if you asked inquiries once you’ve got someone to talk to. People prefer to interact with people interested in their life instead of people who only talk about themselves.

Finally, make and maintain eye contact while speaking. This simple action causes the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important for social bonding.

We must embrace a type of cosmopolitanism to survive in the future:

Let’s face it: turning our lives into a never-ending Zoom call with COVID-19 served to accelerate trends that were already well-established. Even before the pandemic, we spent an increasing amount of time online. We’d grown accustomed to having our groceries and meals delivered at the touch of a button. Our real-life friends were fading into phantoms.

As one might expect, this way of life has resulted in dangerously high levels of loneliness, melancholy, and social alienation. If we keep going in this direction, we’ll end up in a nightmarish future where we’re mostly alone, and the individuals who look after our needs are invisible. This detachment will also lead to a deeper entanglement in cultural, social, and political compartments.

The good news is that there is a viable alternative, which begins with awareness, curiosity, and acceptance.

First and foremost, we must acknowledge our circumstance for what it is. And it implies admitting that we’ve all turned into strangers to one another. “The stranger is no longer the exception, but the rule,” sociologist Lesley Harman observed. In some ways, the further we become apart, the more we have in common.

This is also where cosmopolitanism comes into play. What exactly do we imply when we use this phrase? Margaret Jacob, a historian, gives a helpful definition. She defines it as “the ability to enjoy, curiosity, and interest in individuals of all cultures, creeds, and colors.”

In this sense, cosmopolitanism does not imply that we all become one big, homogeneous blob. Instead, it’s about all of us appreciating our distinct differences and being curious about one another.

Curiosity, after all, is the strongest defense against everything that drives us apart. A curious attitude can help eliminate the myth of lesser minds, which we covered previously — the illusion of believing that others are less intelligent or human than we are.

We can dive into the rich, surprising lives of others by being curious. Most significantly, curiosity may reveal how much we have in common – and how little we have.

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