TED Talks: ‘Why You Should Talk to Strangers’

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December 14, 2016

A simple hello might have no significant meaning, but it opens the door for making others feel significant. It lets people know someone was paying attention to them. It means people can connect by simply acknowledging the other’s presence.

Stranger enthusiast Kio Stark is obsessed with these moments. Not only are the resulting conversations revealing and full of beautiful moments, she says, but they are almost poetic. In this TED Talk, Stark reframes the negative bias of talking to strangers—because even with its bad reputation, the experience can still benefit one’s life.

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“The really sad thing is, in many parts of the world, we're raised to believe that strangers are dangerous by default, that we can't trust them, that they might hurt us,” Stark says. “But most strangers aren't dangerous. We're uneasy around them because we have no context. We don't know what their intentions are. So instead of using our perceptions and making choices, we rely on this category of ‘stranger.’ ”

Stark says one of the biggest benefits of talking to strangers is that it liberates the mind. People put their fears to rest and use their senses instead. Instead of placing people in categories—male, female, young or old—perception kicks in to free the brain of bias. That’s when people can see others as individuals, which could pave the way for “fleeting intimacy,” something Stark says can resonate emotionally.

“Sometimes it goes further,” she says. “Researchers have found that people often feel more comfortable being honest and open about their inner selves with strangers than they do with their friends and their families, that they often feel more understood by strangers…The important thing about these studies is just how significant these interactions can be, how this special form of closeness gives us something we need as much as we need our friends and our families.”

Conversations with strangers work so well because the interaction is quick, and there are no consequences, Stark says. A person might never see the stranger again, and that makes it easier to have an honest talk.

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“With a stranger, we have to start from scratch,” Stark says. “We tell the whole story, we explain who the people are, how we feel about them; we spell out all the inside jokes. And guess what? Sometimes they do understand us a little better.”

There are few simple tricks for having and initiating better conversations with strangers:

  • Find someone who is making eye contact and smile.
  • Comment on a common sighting, like public art—something interesting both people can build a conversation around.
  • Give a compliment.
  • Notice someone with a dog or baby? Talk to either of these first, and then gauge the person’s response to see if they are open to a conversation.
  • Disclose something personal. It can be vulnerable, but rewarding.

“When you talk to strangers, you're making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life and theirs,” Stark says. “You're making unexpected connections. If you don't talk to strangers, you're missing out on all of that.”

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