Here is the full text of author Kio Stark’s talk titled “Why you should talk to strangers” at TED conference. In this talk, she explores the overlooked benefits of pushing past our default discomfort when it comes to strangers and embracing those fleeting but profoundly beautiful moments of genuine connection.
Kio Stark – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
There are things we say when we catch the eye of a stranger or a neighbor walking by.
We say, “Hello, how are you? It’s a beautiful day. How do you feel?”
These sound kind of meaningless, right? And in some ways, they are. They have no semantic meaning. It doesn’t matter how you are or what the day is like.
They have something else. They have social meaning.
What we mean when we say those things is: I see you there. I’m obsessed with talking to strangers. I make eye contact, say hello, I offer help, I listen. I get all kinds of stories.
About seven years ago, I started documenting my experiences to try to figure out why. What I found was that something really beautiful was going on. This is almost poetic.
These were really profound experiences. They were unexpected pleasures. They were genuine emotional connections. They were liberating moments.
So one day, I was standing on a corner waiting for the light to change, which, I’m a New Yorker. So that means I was actually standing in the street on the storm drain, as if that could get me across faster.
And there’s an old man standing next to me. So he’s wearing, like, a long overcoat and sort of an old-man hat, and he looked like somebody from a movie.
And he says to me, “Don’t stand there. You might disappear.” So this is absurd, right?
But I did what he said. I stepped back onto the sidewalk.
And he smiled, and he said, “Good. You never know. I might have turned around, and zoop, you’re gone.”
This was weird, and also really wonderful. He was so warm, and he was so happy that he’d saved me. We had this little bond.
For a minute, I felt like my existence as a person had been noticed, and I was worth saving.
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.
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.”
I have a four-year-old. When I say hello to people on the street, she asks me why. She says, “Do we know them?”
I say, “No, they’re our neighbor.”
“Are they our friend?”
“No, it’s just good to be friendly.”
I think twice every time I say that to her, because I mean it, but as a woman, particularly, I know that not every stranger on the street has the best intentions.
It is good to be friendly, and it’s good to learn when not to be, but none of that means we have to be afraid.
There are two huge benefits to using our senses instead of our fears. The first one is that it liberates us. When you think about it, using perception instead of categories is much easier said than done.
Categories are something our brains use. When it comes to people, it’s sort of a shortcut for learning about them. We see male, female, young, old, black, brown, white, stranger, friend, and we use the information in that box. It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s a road to bias.
And it means we’re not thinking about people as individuals. I know an American researcher who travels frequently in Central Asia and Africa, alone. She’s entering into towns and cities as a complete stranger. She has no bonds, no connections. She’s a foreigner.
Her survival strategy is this: get one stranger to see you as a real, individual person. If you can do that, it’ll help other people see you that way, too.
The second benefit of using our senses has to do with intimacy. I know it sounds a little counterintuitive, intimacy and strangers, but these quick interactions can lead to a feeling that sociologists call “fleeting intimacy.”
So, it’s a brief experience that has emotional resonance and meaning. It’s the good feeling I got from being saved from the death trap of the storm drain by the old man, or how I feel like part of a community when I talk to somebody on my train on the way to work. Sometimes it goes further.
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. This gets reported in the media with great lament.
“Strangers communicate better than spouses!”
It’s a good headline, right? I think it entirely misses the point. 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.