That pigeon: a natural conversation-starter. Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

It’s not that terrifying, and it’s actually good for you, argues the author of the new book, When Strangers Meet.

Kio Stark talks to strangers. Riding in a taxi through New York, she learns that her cab driver grew up in the row of towers they pass on the opposite side of the river. When the cashier at a bagel shop tells Stark “I’m fine,” she pushes back against the platitude: “If you weren’t fine, would you have told me that?” Stark asks.

For Stark, it’s habit; it’s the way she is. She grew up in a smaller town, in a family where striking up a conversation with the unknown person in line at the grocery store was just what was done. But Stark soon realized that attitude was by no means the norm. Friends groaned that Stark’s tendency to stop and chat slowed their path through the city. Sometimes, her “good mornings” were met with crossed arms.

(Simon and Schuster)

In her new book, When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You ($17, TED Books), Stark details her style of navigating a city, one in which passerby are not people to be feared or ignored, but acknowledged, maybe even spoken to. CityLab spoke to her about altering the popular perception of “stranger,” and how to go about interacting, if only momentarily, with someone unknown.

What, in your mind, constitutes a stranger, and how could we go about broadening the narrative around talking to people we don’t know in cities?

The definition of “stranger” is so personal. In the book, there’s a list of common answers I get in response to the question of “What do you think a stranger is?” They range from “The entire world of people you’ve never met or encountered,” to “A person you don’t have anything in common with.” For me, I think about strangers as anybody who is knowable; anybody that I have access to and could potentially interact with.

Many people, depending on their personal experiences, have very legitimate, real reasons for being anxious around strangers. But mostly, strangers are not dangerous. Reframing the concept of “stranger” involves separating the idea of a potentially dangerous person from someone you don’t know. Instead of categorizing people by whether or not you know them, you can use your perception a little more, to give yourself an idea of who someone is and whether it’s worth the risk to talk to them. What I want to do is open people’s imaginations to encompass the idea that this might be something pleasurable, or even important.

Was there a particular experience you had in a city that really crystallized for you the benefit of leaving open the possibility of interacting with people you don’t know?

A little while ago, I was standing on a street corner—in New York, people often stand in the street when they’re waiting to cross, because you need to save that tenth of a second—and I didn’t realize I was standing over the storm drain. A man next to me turned and said to me: “Don’t stand there, you’re going to disappear.”

At first, I thought it was ridiculous. Did he mean I was going to fall in, or some evil spirit was going to suck me down through the sewer grate? But there was something very caring in the way he said it. So I stepped back onto the sidewalk, and he said, “Good, you never know what might happen—I might turn around, and zoop! You’re gone.” I’ve been talking to strangers my whole life and trying to understand what it’s about, and in that moment, I realized I really existed to the degree that it would upset this man if I disappeared. That notion of feeling acknowledged as a person is one of the core pieces to me.

There’s such a specific setting to that story; the storm drain formed the crux of your interaction. Are there particular locations throughout cities that are also conducive to interacting with strangers? How can you put the urban landscape to work facilitating these conversations?

Certain places are generally just more open, especially when people aren’t in a hurry. Parks are open regions, stores are open regions, there are also open situations like parades and public events. If you go to an outdoor concert, for instance, and put your blanket down, the people next to you are temporarily your neighbors; because it’s an open situation and an open place, you might strike up a conversation.

To do so, you can take an approach I discuss in the book, called triangulation. The triangle is made up of you, a stranger, and a third thing that closes the loop—that might be something that you’re both experiencing or seeing that’s worthy of notice. If you’re really looking to talk to strangers, go to places where there are things to triangulate—parks with public art, or squares with buskers or street performers.

You can also keep an eye out for smaller things: there might be a cute dog or someone doing something strange—an itinerant preacher on the subway, say. In those situations, you’re more likely to exchange a glance with someone, and that might be the whole outcome, or you could say something like: “Wow, he’s really fire and brimstone today.” It’s an offering, and often, these interactions turn into really pleasurable conversations where you realize you’re talking to somebody who’s not just a face on the subway; you’re talking to someone with a personhood and an accent, and you’re really listening to their opinions.

How can you be sure, when trying to interact with someone unknown, that you’re not violating their personal boundaries or sense of comfort?

There is a very pervasive culture of street harassment in the United States. That means that people, often women, are spoken at in public; they’re catcalled, and sometimes they’re insulted. It’s unwanted and unpleasant, and it’s a real wrench in the idea of a kind of open conversation with strangers and saying hello. When you’re talking to people on the street, you have to be aware of that.

You have to pay careful attention to a person’s demeanor. If someone approaching you is not meeting people’s eyes, don’t bother. There are open and closed postures. Take note of a person’s physical configuration and how they’re holding their body to get a sense of the degree to which they’re turned inwards or outwards. And I like to compliment something neutral about people. I notice people’s shoes a lot—you don’t have to look at a person’s body to remark on them, but saying something [specific] says that you’re recognizing them as an individual.

Often, walking through the street in a city, the overarching feeling for people is that of loneliness. Do you see the type of overtures you describe in the book as an antidote to solitude? What do you think interactions between strangers accomplish for the people involved?

This book and the ideas in it are not about making friends. Everything discussed can be used in the service of making friends, but all of this is about these very temporary interactions, and the point is that relationships can form in this momentary sense.

These experiences, when they’re pleasurable, really counteract loneliness. Not the type of loneliness of someone looking for a life partner, but it really assuages the kind of general malaise you feel when you’re in a city surrounded by people, and they’re all so close to you and you feel solitary anyway.

Even just exchanging smiles can re-orient your feelings about belonging and connectedness. But it’s like exercise; you should do it on a regular basis. For some people, it can be a little painful at first, but actually feels good once you’ve done it.

When Strangers Meet, $17 at Amazon.

About the Author

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