Joe Keohane’s the Power of Strangers

Joe Keohane, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World (Viking 2021)

If I hadn’t already embarked on my 500 people project before I read this book, I would have started on it now. It’s a terrific book, of which the fabulous Ayad Akhtar (my blog post on his Homeland Elegies here) says on the back cover:

Rare is the book that delivers on the promise of a big answer to an even bigger question, but Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers does just that. This lively, searching work makes the case that welcoming ‘others’ isn’t just the bedrock of civilisation, it’s the surest path to the best of what life has to offer.

I can’t say it any better.

Joe Keohane is a journalist, used to talking to strangers as part of his job, with the aim of extracting newsworthy information and quotes. This book is about a different kind of talk, the reciprocal kind that is an essential part of being human, but which has been much neglected in recent decades.

Keohane draws on studies in primatology, archaeology, psychology and sociology. He describes the behaviour of ferociously territorial chimps and sweet-natured bonobos. He quotes philosophers, political scientists, novelists and historians. He interviews activists and takes part in classes, reporting on his successes and his embarrassments. He peppers his arguments with witty and moving anecdotes. He comes across as charming, intelligent, generous, and persuasive.

One of the user-friendlty feature of the book is that every now and then Keohane gives a little summary of the Book So Far. Here’s one from about the midpoint:

All right. So what do we know? We know that interdependence made hunter-gatherer groups more sociable among themselves and eventually with other groups. We know that greeting rituals in hospitality were evolved to reconcile the threat strangers pose with the opportunities that present… We know that we’re wired to favour our groups, but also that our definition of our group is flexible. We know that we’re predisposed to like people with whom we have something in common, even if we have no idea who they are and even if it consists of little more than wearing the same baseball cap. We know that cities can bring us together with countless strangers, but they can also create social norms that keep us apart. We know that talking across group boundaries can make us anxious, and we know that the relentless messaging about stranger danger that several generations were clobbered with has warped our sense of threat and possibly harmed our ability to trust.

(Page 166)

I won’t summarise the arguments for how talking to strangers was crucial to human survival in prehistoric times, or how rituals were devised to make it safe. I won’t do more than mention the experiments that show people’s sense of wellbeing increasing noticeably after they talk to a stranger, or even greet them with a wave and a smile. I won’t go into the fascinating findings that in places with high levels of generalised trust people tend not to be friendly to strangers, and vice versa, Australia being a rare, even possibly unique, exception: evidently we’re both trusting and friendly. I’ll skip over the lesser minds problem, that is, the common practical assumption that strangers aren’t fully human; and the self-explanatory phenomenon of absent presence. I’ll refrain from relaying the story of the viene-vienes in Mexico City (you can read about them here).

I will give you a surprisingly long list of projects that set out to encourage and enable people to talk to strangers. Most of them are in the USA – Keohane is a New Yorker – but while the ills they address may have a different flavour in other countries, I doubt if any place is free of them. In the order of appearance:

  1. Trigger Conversations: ‘a London-based “human connection organisation” that hosts social events aimed at facilitating meaningful conversations among strangers’, founded in 2016. Keohane spends a lot of time on what he learned at classes run by its founder, Georgie Nightingall
  2. Chatty Cafés: more than 900 pubs and cafés in the UK ‘set up specially marked tables where strangers can chat’
  3. Crossing Divides, a BBC series, which instituted a ‘chatty bus’ day, ‘during which riders were encouraged to talk to one another’
  4. Talk to Me, founded in 2012, a group that ‘distributed “Talk to Me” buttons to signal a willingness to talk in public, and set up “talk bars” in public spaces’
  5. Conversations New York (CNY) ‘holds regular, free group conversations, largely among strangers’. Forty to eighty people turn up at a college or in a park, are divided into groups and then talk for 90 minutes, ‘working from a list of topical or philosophical questions’
  6. Urban Confessional, which ‘encourages people to make their own crudely drawn cardboard signs [saying something like Free Listening] and stand in heavily trafficked locations offering themselves up as listeners to anyone who wants to talk’. The volunteers work in pairs to make the experience less intimidatingly intense for all parties
  7. The League of Creative Interventionists, a Californian organisation that has a number of projects, including Fear Doctor, in which someone sets up a booth in a public place that looks like Lucy’s psychiatrist booth in the Peanuts strip; and the Neighbourhood Postcard Project, in which the organisation’s founder Hunter Franks collected positive stories from the residents of a neighbourhood with a bad reputation, written on postcards, and then mailed them to people in different neighbourhoods
  8. An Instagram account called Subway Book Review that, among other things, sells tote bags that read, ‘Ask Me About the Book I’m Reading’
  9. Feasts of Strangers, hosted by the Oxford Muse Foundation, ‘dinners in which stranger are paired up and given a “menu” of intense personal questions’. The dinners last for two hours and have taken place in 15 countries
  10. Some fascinating individual projects: a young man named Judah Berger set up a table in Washington Square park in Manhattan with a sign reading, ‘Where Are You Going?’; Thomas Knox, an African-American, took a table and two chairs down to a New York subway platform to try to get people to talk to him – and succeeded amazingly; Danielle Allen, author of Talking to strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (2004), has made a practice of talking to strangers and sees it as ‘gift giving’
  11. Braver Angels (originally called Better Angels) organises huge workshops where everyone wears a lanyard identifying them as either Republican or Democrat, and in a series of carefully structured events learn how to talk to each other – with remarkable success, even in post-Trump USA

This book was recommended to me by Jim Kable, frequent commenter on this blog. I’m hugely grateful for the recommendation.

5 responses to “Joe Keohane’s the Power of Strangers

  1. kathyprokhovnik

    So interesting. Although I started to feel a little nervous when contemplating the chatty cafe. What if I sat at a table and no-one chatted to me?

    Like

    • Every one of those things terrifies me, Kathy. In fact, something I’d effectively forgotten, I once, with a friend who is roughly as shy and socially awkward as I am, stood in Martin Place with a sign saying something like ‘Tell us what you think about the Intervention.’ No one did. But then we did a similar thing in Glebe Markets, where the sign said, How has racism affected you? We had one terrific conversation with a young Armenian guy. But cringe doesn’t begin to cover it

      Like

  2. Pingback: 500 people: Week 44 | Me fail? I fly!

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