Jason Feifer: This is Build for Tomorrow, a podcast about the things that shape us and how we can shape the future. I’m Jason Feifer. This summer, as I was out in the neighborhood with my six-year-old son, I started talking to some random person on our block. It was just the usual small-talk stuff, nothing important. And afterwards, my son turned to me and asked, why was I talking to a stranger? Because aren’t you not supposed to talk to strangers? And when he said this, it occurred to me that he has been focusing a lot on strangers lately. He would point out that someone is a stranger or be curious about why I just spoke to someone we don’t know.
Jason Feifer: And so I asked him, what does he know about strangers? And he said-
Fenn: Don’t listen to them.
Jason Feifer: Don’t listen to them? Do you ever talk to them?
Jason Feifer: He shook his head, no.
Fenn: I just see them and I make no sound.
Jason Feifer: I just see them and I make no sound. And then he followed up with this, which I really didn’t expect.
Fenn: … carrying a gun in the pocket.
Jason Feifer: Do I think that somebody’s carrying a gun in their pocket?
Jason Feifer: My son is telling me that strangers carry guns in their pockets. Now, he is a social kid. He does not go through the world afraid of people. So I’m not sure if he’s internalized all of this, or if he’s just telling me what he thinks I want to hear, but still I wondered, where is he getting all of this from? It did not come from me or my wife in any way. What you tell a kid about strangers today is supposed to be very different from what I was told as a kid in the ’80s and ’90s. Back then, a national hysteria over child kidnappings had led to the idea of stranger danger, where kids were instructed to avoid anyone they didn’t know.
Jason Feifer: But today, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children actually discourages parents from talking about stranger danger. That’s because children are actually much more likely to be harmed by someone they know, rather than a stranger, and the fear of strangers was inhibiting a child from seeking help if they were in distress. So anyway, I asked my son where he learned all this stuff about strangers. Did school teach it to him? But he said, no, he just figured it out himself. And that seems very plausible to me because think of it, every kid is surrounded by adults who are also afraid of strangers.
Jason Feifer: And I am talking about all of us, including you. I’m talking about me and you and everyone else. Most of us, we just go through the world basically rocking out to Rick Springfield.
Audio clip (Rick Springfield): (singing)
Jason Feifer: Once we’re adults, it’s not like we’re all worried about getting kidnapped by strangers, but strangers just feel intimidating. What do you say to them? Should you say anything to them? Maybe we’re not supposed to say anything to them. Maybe it’s not even natural to talk to them.
Joe Keohane: There is an assumption that for the bulk of our time as a species, which is now 300,000 years or something, but you could trace it back to the genus homo popping up around two million years ago or more, that our default is that we hate strangers. That we’re afraid of them, that we think they might be demons or they’re carrying disease, and that we fought them.
Jason Feifer: That is Joe Keohane, who, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, has spent a lot of time talking to straight.
Joe Keohane: When people say we’re so tribal and they always lament how tribal we are, it always means that we believe that for most of our time on earth, it’s been small groups of similar people sitting around. And once someone else turned up, they attacked that person.
Jason Feifer: That is exactly what I used to think too. I had this story in my head that in ancient times, if two strangers encountered each other in whatever, the wide open, they would just instantly battle to the death. And now that I’m thinking about it, where did I get that story? Did someone tell it to me? Did I read it somewhere? I just took it as fact because it just seems so true. Turn on the news on any day, at any moment, and you’ll find stories where the premise is basically one person or group did something awful to another person or group because they were strangers.
Joe Keohane: It seems to make a certain sense. And you see evidence of that all the time. You see it in our politics, you see it in the way people can be. But what I really became interested in was a simple question, if our default is to kill everybody we don’t know, how did we ever end up living the way we live?
Jason Feifer: Because think of it, we are constantly surrounded by strangers. If you live in a city, there are strangers everywhere. If you work at a company, you are collaborating with strangers. If you run a business, you are catering to strangers. So anyway, Joe is a journalist and wanted to answer this question, if our default is to kill strangers, then how did we end up living the way we live? And then he spent years researching this question and he just wrote the answer. It comes in the form of a completely fascinating book called The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, in which he learned that everything we think we know about strangers is actually wrong.
Joe Keohane: A lot of researchers and historians have argued that the ability to talk to strangers and coordinate with strangers and cooperate with strangers is like the cornerstone of human civilization. It’s a big thing.
Jason Feifer: Our earliest ancestors lived in small groups, but once we learned to cooperate with other small groups that we didn’t know, it opened up the way for the modern world as we know it. And because of this, today, we actually are built to talk to strangers.
Joe Keohane: We are wired for connection to a certain degree. Now, there are a lot of things that conspire against us making these sorts of connections, but the capacity is there. It’s there for extroverted people, certainly, but it’s also there for introverted people, it’s there for people who might consider themselves shy. There’s a big wall there of anxiety that needs to be overcome in order to do it, and I talked to so many people who repeated this again and again, and again, once you start trying, you will find that it’s incredibly natural in a way that you absolutely did not expect.
Jason Feifer: And it has benefits that you do not expect. Joe is an old friend of mine, which is to say that he was once a stranger until I went to a party at his house in my like mid 20s, and we have since worked together at a bunch of magazines and I’ve been hearing about his research into strangers for years. So now that the book is out, I am really excited to dig into it with him because well, this podcast is about clearing out the obstacles between us and the future. And there is perhaps no more fundamental obstacle than a distrust of others. We can not truly build anything unless we build it with others.
Jason Feifer: So on this episode of Build for Tomorrow, we are rewriting that old Rick Springfield song. Now, we are saying, yes-
Audio clip (Rick Springfield): (singing)
Jason Feifer: We will explore the history of strangers, how we came to collaborate with strangers, the surprising importance of talking to strangers and how right now you can become better at it. All coming up after the break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we’re back. On this episode, we are talking about talking to strangers, and I’m going to divide this episode in half. In the first half, we’ll talk about the surprising history of strangers. And in the second half, we’ll talk about how to connect with strangers today. All right. First, the history. I wanted Joe to take me as far back as he could in our relationship to strangers. And he said, “Okay, let’s start at the beginning.”
Joe Keohane: I started with apes.
Jason Feifer: Our two closest genetic relatives are number one, the chimpanzee, and number two, the bonobo. All right, fine. That joke is only funny if that there’s also an electronic artist named Bonobo. Come on guys, I’m trying here. Anyway, these two animals may both swing from trees and eat bugs off of each other’s backs. But because we share so much DNA with them, they are really two different models for how humans could have developed. On the one side, you have the chimpanzee.
Joe Keohane: Chimpanzees are bastards. They can cooperate and then they form alliances and stuff. But those alliances tend to be dicey and transactional. Chimps don’t feed their kids, they kill everything. They just try to kill any stranger who comes near them, super xenophobic, pretty violent. They kill each other’s infants.
Jason Feifer: And then there’s the bonobo.
Joe Keohane: In experiments, they’ve been seeing sharing food with a stranger before they share it with a friend, because the structure of that society incentivizes building a social network. So if a stranger comes town in a bonobo area, the bonobos will be curious, they’ll approach, they won’t necessarily attack first. They certainly can fight, but they will try to form a relationship with the stranger.
Jason Feifer: So this is like our evolutionary fork in the road. Option A, be a bastard. Option B, collaborate. And how did we come to choose option B? Well, here’s theory, about two million years ago, the earliest forms of humans began to develop and scientists believe that they initially lived in these very small groups, maybe six to 20 people. They didn’t move around a lot because there was no reason to, but over long periods of time, the environment changed, the earth became cooler and drier, which altered where and how food would grow, which meant that any one group singular environment may no longer provide everything that they need.
Joe Keohane: They need to create.
Jason Feifer: Which means that Jack from Lost was actually giving a very sophisticated analysis of evolutionary biology.
Audio Clip (Jack from Lost): Last week, most of us were strangers, but if we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.
Jason Feifer: So now you have small bands of people cooperating, and that leads to what anthropologists call fission-fusion societies. It is people moving between bands. Maybe one person marries into another band, or your cousin leaves your band for a while, and then comes back with a friend. And this has a transformative impact on how strangers understand each other.
Joe Keohane: If there’s a lot of traffic between groups, there’s no fixed identity. It’s not like we’re group A and they’re group B. It’s more like, we’re a group A, but like my cousin’s over there now, because he left like six months ago. And that helps demystify that other a little bit.
Jason Feifer: Eventually, our bodies evolved to optimize for this cooperation.
Joe Keohane: We developed the whites of our eyes, which is something that wolves don’t have or chimpanzees don’t have. And it’s useful because it telegraphs what we’re going to do.
Jason Feifer: This, by the way, has an awesome name, it is called the cooperative eye hypothesis. In short, the idea is that the whites of our eyes give away our intentions. They make it easier for others to see what we’re looking at.
Joe Keohane: It shows that we evolved to prize cooperation over competition in that regard because when you and I are working on something, when I look at something, it’s signals to you that you should look at this too so we can do this project together.
Jason Feifer: This has a downside, of course, an opponent of ours can more easily see what we’re looking at or get a sense of what we plan to do. But the pros of cooperation outweigh the cons of competition. So these little groups start to intermingle. They also start to combine. Soon, you have large groups and more complex societies, and it’s not possible to know everyone. So how do you know how to identify who’s trustworthy? Let’s say a random guy shows up in your village, maybe he knows where water is or maybe he’s a violent lunatic. How can we tell the difference?
Jason Feifer: Our ancient ancestors had no way of writing down their solutions, so scientists have sought answers by studying more contemporary hunter gatherer groups. And they found a fairly universal process which groups around the world developed independently of each other. Scientists call it a greeting ritual.
Joe Keohane: It can be a little different from society to society, but I’ll give you one example from the Kalahari Desert. A guy approaches. Now, we see him, he can’t hide. He’d be like peeking out from behind a tree because then you think he’s the snake and he’s going to do something terrible. So he has to be in plain view. He walks at a safe distance, whatever weapon he has, he throws it aside, he lets it sit there. And then he demonstrates his self-restraint by sitting there until we come out and talk to him, which is pretty interesting because this is one of the components of dehumanization, is that we don’t think strangers have self-restraint or willpower like we do. We think they’re more impulsive, that’s why we think they’re dangerous.
Joe Keohane: So this guy literally just demonstrates that he can control himself. He sits there, we make them sit there for as long as we want him to sit there and he has to stay and he can’t do anything. So in time, when we reassured of the fact that he had self-control, we send somebody out to go talk to him. It could be an elder, could be anybody. And in this one case in the Kalahari Desert, the elder walks out and he crutches on the ground in front of the guy, in front of the stranger, and they don’t look each other in the eye. And the stranger has been around enough that he knows he has to be like very passive, sort of docile. He has to show that he’s not dangerous.
Joe Keohane: So he’s not making eye contact either because eye contact can become a challenge. And whoever came up from our camp just starts talking to him. And so what happens when we talk? You start hearing what they call paralinguistic cues, like in here on the tone of your voice, I am experiencing your humanity, you’re demystifying yourself, you’re showing yourself to be a person. So we chat a little bit. And then maybe we ask where he’s coming from, maybe we ask who he knows, who his family is. Maybe we know them. Maybe there’s some kind of social connection there that we can build off of.
Joe Keohane: When we’re reassured that he’s not a threat, then he’s reasonably reassured, because you can never really know. Someone else comes out and maybe they bring some food or maybe they bring a fire stick or some ritual object to cement this relationship that we have. And then we bring them back into the camp. Now, he owes us because we didn’t kill him. And we’re curious about him, so now you can talk and you can exchange information, you can exchange techniques, you can exchange knowledge, whatever.
Jason Feifer: You know what this sounds like to me, it sounds like an explanation for the handshake. Nobody in modern culture today has time for an elaborate greeting ritual, so we have shortened it to this exchange where we hold each other’s hands, which puts us both in vulnerable positions. I asked Joe if that sounds about right, and he said, “In fact, the handshake can be a lot more complicated than we think.” Consider for example, the handshake of the Tuareg people, who are middle Eastern herders. They live in the desert where there are a lot of warring tribes, so they are deeply suspicious of strangers.
Jason Feifer: But if they run into a stranger on their camel in the desert or whatever, they cannot run away, that’s because they’ll just prompt the other person to think that something’s wrong and that other person will attack.
Joe Keohane: So they have to approach, they have to find a way to safely approach and talk to each other, but they’re very suspicious. So they come together, gradually approach each other, and everyone again has to demonstrate their humanity by not being jittery or freaked out or like erratic or yelling or anything like that. You have to be very calm, you have to be cool, you have to be reasonable. And they come over, and once they get close enough, they offer a hand. And so the Tuareg handshake, I wrote about this in the book, ends up being like a really, really subtle thing because you go over and you’re offering a hand.
Joe Keohane: So what happens? That guy could pull me off the camel, easily take my camel and now I’m dead. I’ll just die. There’s no way to live. So I’m showing a little vulnerability and trust by extending my hand and he’s doing the same thing. Now, if I grabbed his hand too hard, he’s going to get freaked out because he’s got to think that I’m grabbing it to pull him off the camel. But if I grab his hand too soft, he’s going to think that I don’t trust him and he’s going to get offended. So it’s like the super finely calibrated handshake in the middle of the Sahara Desert between two guys. That was totally fascinating.
Jason Feifer: And of course, when you think of it like that, we also have a finely calibrated handshake. Too loose, and you are weird, too tight, and you’re a dick. This is our modern greeting ritual. And now, let’s talk about one more moment from the history of strangers that shaped us. And it begins by better understanding the scenario that Joe described a moment ago. The scenario is this, a stranger approaches your village. So now you’ve got to go through the greeting ritual, figure out if they’re cool. And if they are, maybe they’ll stay awhile.
Jason Feifer: All right. Now, here’s the question. Where did that stranger come from and why do they have nowhere else to go? 10,000 years ago, there was actually a pretty consistent answer to that question. The stranger arriving in your village was likely a surplus male. And surplus males gave rise to a cornerstone of civilization that we still have today. I don’t mean the men who have no practical purpose in the world so they feel the emptiness inside of them by running for Congress, I’m talking about something more fundamental. So let’s back up and explain all of this.
Jason Feifer: First of all, what was going on 10,000 years ago? The answer is agriculture. Nomadic people were starting to stay in one place and harvest their food, which was a radical shift in how people lived. And the rise of agriculture would have meant the decline of hunting.
Joe Keohane: As far as we know, most of the hunting was done by men, and now you’re not hunting as much. So what did the men do? It turns out that there wasn’t that much for them to do. There’s a theory by an archeologist named Martin Jones, he’s at Oxford. They was saying that when society shifted, all of these men became obsolete. Lots of men became obsolete. They didn’t have anything to do anymore, they had no place, presumably their identities would be challenged like our identities are challenged when society changes. And a lot of them just left
Jason Feifer: Where’d they go? Well, they would die if they just went wandering into the wide open. So instead, they started to visit all of these new little farms and settlements.
Joe Keohane: The settlements ended up functioning as like weigh stations for wandering men. So they would wander and they would come to a settlement. And then at the settlement, they would put them up, they would give them some food. They would learn what the stranger knew. The stranger wouldn’t learn what these people knew. Maybe they stuck around, maybe they went somewhere else
Jason Feifer: Through this, the theory goes, human mobility explodes. People start visiting each other and a system of favors and relationships are built. You fed and housed this person from my village, so now I feed and house the person from your village. And out of this comes a radical new concept.
Audio Clip (Be our guest): (singing)
Joe Keohane: That’s hospitality. That’s the formation of hospitality, the tradition of hospitality.
Jason Feifer: And Joe says that if you fast forward 7,000 years or so, you see that hospitality becomes a central tenet of societies around the world. The ancient Greeks, the ancient Japanese, they pride themselves on their hospitality and their religions reinforce the importance of it.
Joe Keohane: There are millions of folktales on all these cultures where gods pretend to be strangers, they approach someone’s house, they asked for hospitality. And when they don’t get it, they kill the person or they ruined their town, or they turn them into birds. Seriously, like a ton of people get turned into birds because of that.
Jason Feifer: Even today, this is a story that seemingly every culture tells about itself. Just ask like anyone. I’m sure that whatever religion or country or culture you come from, you think of your people as especially uniquely hospitable. And Joe says there is a reason that cultures developed to think like this. You can see it when you look back at ancient cultures like the Greeks.
Joe Keohane: How did they become sacred? We think of hospitality as like going to a hotel or something, but to them, it’s a way to gain security in an insecure world. So for the Greeks, there aren’t really police… There are no strong central institutions that protect people, and the world is chaotic and violent, there’s a lot of war, there’s a lot of violence, there’s a lot of suspicion and everything else. Hospitality allowed them to live in a dangerous and unstable world. It was the only thing that allowed them to live in a dangerous and unstable world because you couldn’t travel. If you didn’t know anybody, you were just going to get killed.
Joe Keohane: So it became like the religion. It became sacred. And you see this in tons of societies.
Jason Feifer: Let’s briefly recap. Small bands of early humans survived better by cooperating with strangers. Our bodies evolved to encourage that cooperation. We formed a larger communities and developed systems by which to safely meet and integrate strangers into those communities. Now, what does that mean about us today? Well, according to Joe, that means that cooperating with strangers became almost part of our genes. Evolutionary biologists call it culture, gene co-evolution.
Joe Keohane: It basically means that like I start doing a thing and it’s going great, and it allows me to prosper, it allows me to have more children, it allows my people to grow. That becomes part of your genes.
Jason Feifer: Okay. If that is all inside of us, if we have millions of years of cooperation deeply embedded in our genes, why are we so afraid of strangers now? And how can we start to break that wall down? That is what we will talk about next, coming up after the break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we’re back. We just learned how deeply the value of strangers is embedded inside of us, and it is now time to ask, why don’t we feel that now? And what can we do about it? Joe says that there are two main reasons that we are bad at connecting with strangers today. The first is that we don’t generally need to. Given the conveniences of our modern lives, we could go weeks or months without having a meaningful interaction with a stranger, and interacting with strangers takes a lot of work. You’re reading them on all levels, you’re communicating a lot about yourself. It is exhausting. And if we don’t have to do it, we often don’t.
Jason Feifer: The second reason that we’ve lost touch with strangers is propaganda. It is stuff like stranger danger, which my son somehow picked up on, or just turn on cable news, and you will see the same story on repeat. It goes like this, “Strangers who disagree with you are bad people who should be avoided or defeated.” And what do we lose because of all of this?
Joe Keohane: What you lose is everything that we gain from learning to talk to strangers as a species. You lose contacts, you lose potential business contacts, you lose access to different perspectives, you lose access to the marketplace to a certain degree if you’re not talking to people who are different than you are. You lose access to a person who tells you that your idea is stupid and here’s why. All this stuff is invaluable. When you interact with lots and lots and lots of people, you have a much more accurate idea of what the world is and what people are like and what motivates them.
Joe Keohane: This is super important for business, but it’s important for being a functional member of a democracy. When you don’t have contact with other groups, it allows you the luxury of inventing them in your own mind.
Jason Feifer: Obviously, division among people is not new. The history of racism and war and partisanship will tell you that. And we may have always collaborated with strangers, but we surely have also always found comfort in the familiar, and we feared people who represented the unknown. This is perhaps the most fundamental tensions we have as humans, but still, we today have our own ways of exacerbating these tensions. If you think about what Joe just said about how not interacting with strangers will shape a narrow worldview and how it also enables people to just create a fiction in their heads about what strangers are actually like, well, then you could go really big or small with that.
Jason Feifer: It helps explain how one community becomes fearful of another community. And it explains how one individual is afraid of interacting with another individual. I’d like to look briefly at both the large and the small implications of this, and then zero in on one common solution. First, let’s go big and structural. Joe said that, look, if you want two different groups to reach an understanding and get along better, there is only one real way to do it.
Joe Keohane: When you have contact, meaningful contact with people from other groups, it’s very difficult to say that that group is all one thing, and that one thing is bad. I spent a week with a group that teaches Republicans and Democrats how to speak to each other, that gets into a lot of how you can humanize one another and sit down on a table and have a conversation, and then look into what happens after people have those conversations, which is like, they’re amazed, they’re relieved. They can’t believe that this is a person. These aren’t supposed to be people. It’s hugely beneficial.
Jason Feifer: And this reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with Rachel Peric, the executive director of an organization called Welcoming America. Its goal is to create inclusive communities that are welcoming to immigrants. And I had asked her, what is the single most effective tool for connecting different kinds of people? How do you bring the immigrants together with the folks who came before them? She said, “Nothing compares to having them meet in person.” So as I was making this episode, I called Rachel up to learn more about how that actually happens.
Rachel Peric: This intersection between strangers and navigating change is something I’ve spent the better part of the last decade or more working on, thinking about. And so just really thrilled to be talking about it with you.
Jason Feifer: Rachel says that if you want to understand her work, you first need to back up and understand two kinds of relationship capital. The first will be familiar to most people. It is called social capital.
Rachel Peric: And it’s this idea that some of the assets that you gain as a member of a community have to do with your relationship to other people.
Jason Feifer: If I make a lot of friends and do a lot of things for people, I accrue social capital. Then I can spend that social capital, which is to say, people will do things for me in return. This is good. It’s the basic give and take of a community. But here’s what people don’t often think about with social capital, it is a fairly closed system. I am doing things for people inside of my community, or at least connected to my community, but that leaves out everybody else, all the people we don’t interact with, who we therefore do not get the value of helping and being helped by.
Jason Feifer: When we connect with those people, when we reach outside of our group and into another one, that is when we get a second kind of relationship capital, it is called bridging capital. And are people usually aware of their deficiency in bridging capital? They are not, but they are aware of some boundary, some barrier that they feel in their community. Rachel says when people live in communities that are changing, they often say that they feel like a stranger in their own land. And then they close themselves off from anything that feels strange. But they want to solve this problem, she says.
Jason Feifer: They don’t want to be a stranger. To illustrate this, she told me a story about a project that her organization helped work on in some small towns in Nebraska.
Rachel Peric: What they realized was that there were businesses in the community like a lumber store or hardware store that they’ve been there for many years, owned by the white community, let’s say there. And then there were these newer businesses that were immigrant owned and people just weren’t patronizing each other stores.
Jason Feifer: White people in town were literally traveling out of their way to other towns in order to go to a store that felt more familiar rather than to shop at a local store owned by an immigrant. And why? The answer sounds like it would be racism, but Rachel says, it’s more complicated than that. For many people, they honestly did not know if they were welcomed in these stores. So the local organization operated a little tour.
Rachel Peric: Literally all they did was bring people into each other’s stores, but because people were crossing some boundaries in their in group, they were literally crossing into each other’s businesses and made to feel welcome in those places, it just had this big impact in people’s interest, desire to shop at those places.
Jason Feifer: Now you had more shoppers, more business, more communication, and more of a community. This is bridging capital. And here is another way of looking at bridging capital which I did not expect when she mentioned it.
Audio Clip (Perfect Strangers): Larry, Larry, Larry! I look everywhere for you! I walk the streets, I search the alleys, I say to everyone, “Have you seen Larry?” You don’t know how many people have never heard of you. But now I find you and I’m safe, I’m safe, I’m safe!
Audio Clip (Perfect Strangers): Yes, yes, now you’re safe. Who are you?
Jason Feifer: Remember Perfect Strangers, that sitcom from the 1980s in which Balki Bartokomous leaves his tiny fictional island nipples of and moves in with his distant cousin, Larry in Chicago?
Rachel Peric: It’s a show that reflects the stereotypes of its time, we’ll just say that.
Jason Feifer: Or we could also say that now we are so happy, we do the Dance of Joy.
Audio Clip (Perfect Strangers): (singing)
Jason Feifer: In case you did not watch or remember this show, here’s a quick recap. Balki is wide-eyed and goofy, and Larry is grumpy and unsuccessful. But as time goes on, they go from working in a discount store and living in a tiny apartment to building their careers, upgrading their home and dating two best friend flight attendants.
Rachel Peric: They’re both trying to make it. And then what you come to realize is they both have something to learn from one another. It’s like this beautiful story about mutuality. They both need to learn from one. And they’re going to sink if they don’t try to swim together.
Jason Feifer: In other words, for all its flaws, Perfect Strangers was really a story about bridging capital. Okay. This is a weighty and complicated and extremely timely subject, and we could go on about it forever, but let’s just zero in on the core thing that Rachel and Joe identified in their stories about connecting people. What keeps groups of people apart? The answer is fear of the stranger and fear of not being welcomed by the stranger, and not understanding the stranger, and not interacting with the stranger. So now let’s turn to how we, as individuals can connect with strangers, because Joe says, we have the wrong idea about this.
Joe Keohane: A lot of people who have researched this, particularly psychologists have collected a lot of data on what keeps people from doing this. Fear of rejection is an enormous impediment to talking to strangers. Everybody seems to believe that if you just go and chat with someone, they’re going to reject you. They’re going to think you’re nuts, they’re going to think there’s something wrong with you. They’re going to think you’re after something, you’re selling something. There’s a whole lot of fear of rejection out there with people.
Joe Keohane: What people need to understand is that it’s largely baseless. There was a great series of experiments done by a psychologist named Nicholas Epley, who had people go out in Chicago and London and just chat with strangers on the tube, on the subway, on the CTA, buses and taxis all over the place. Now, before we sent them out, he asked them how they expected this to go. And every single person was like, “This is a nightmare. I don’t want to do this. People are going to hate my guts. This is going to go very badly.” And what he discovered is that no one was rejected, not one, out of hundreds of people.
Joe Keohane: And these were not trained people, these are commuters and students of all ages. Everyone who went out and made an effort to chat with people on mass transit, which is the biggest taboo of all. We do not talk to each other at the subway, no one was rejected. Everyone had a conversation. And not only that, the conversation went on significantly longer than they thought it was going to go on. It was more fun than they thought. They enjoyed their commutes more than they thought. The other people were more interesting than they expected them to be. And the other people seem to be interested in them.
Jason Feifer: Joe did this himself as he reported in his book, he learned all of these tricks for talking to strangers, and then use them to start conversations with people everywhere. And what kinds of tricks did he use? I will share three that I found especially interesting. The first is this, acknowledge that you’re breaking the rules. Think about it, if a stranger approaches you in a place where you are not usually talking to strangers, like the subway, well then you are going to think, “This person is not supposed to come up and talk to me here, and that means there’s something wrong in their head.”
Jason Feifer: And that is why if you are going to go up and talk to a stranger in a place like the subway, which you totally can do, the first words out of your mouth should be an acknowledgement that you are breaking a social norm. You could say something like, “Hey, I know we’re not supposed to be talking to people on the subway, but,” and now you’ve demonstrated that you are not wrong in the head because you are aware of the situation. So next, you have to make a statement. Why are you there? Why are you talking to them?
Jason Feifer: You could say, “I really like your shoes.” And then this is very important. You have to give them a justification for why you are talking to them. You could say like, “My shoes are worn down and I’ve been looking for a new pair.” The justification is important because it addresses their suspicion. They’re wondering if you have an agenda, and now they know what it is, and it’s not such a bad agenda. The door is now open to conversation. And here’s a second strategy for talking to strangers. Break the script, because we do have a script.
Jason Feifer: How are you doing? Fine. You? There are tons of empty things that we say to each other, which encourage people to go on autopilot. You’re just not thinking about it at all. You’re not thinking about what you’re saying to the person or what the person is saying to you. So to snap people out of it, you must break the script with specificity and surprise.
Joe Keohane: Don’t ask people what they do, ask them what they would like to do more of.
Jason Feifer: Or if someone asks how you’re doing, don’t say fine. Say, “I’m a 7.5 out of 10.” And then explain why you’re a 7.5, and then ask the person how they’re doing. When you do this, Joe says the craziest thing will happen. The other person will mirror you. It’s what we do. We naturally follow other people’s lead. And now you’re talking. The third and final tip I’ll share is, ask open-ended questions instead of hyper-specific questions. This was tough for Joe, because as a journalist, he is good at digging into people.
Jason Feifer: But then he flew to London to take a class on talking to strangers and was paired up with a classmate for an exercise, and he started drilling her with questions until she told him something juicy.
Joe Keohane: If I get something pretty good, I got to say, pat myself on the back. But the teacher came over and she was like, “Okay, so that’s fine.” And I was pretty pleased with myself, but she was like, “But that was an interrogation. Yes, you got a piece of information that you were looking for, but what you didn’t do is allow the conversation to go somewhere where you weren’t expecting it to go.” So when you ask open-ended questions, you cede control of the conversation to the other person. You’re allowing them to surprise you.
Joe Keohane: And it’s super stressful for people, and it’s stressful for me as the journalist to do that, to not just go, try to ferret something out, to be like, “Man, why do you think that way?” And then you also have to pay attention because you never know where it’s going to go. You have to be really engaged. You have to watch body language, you have to listen tone of voice, and you have to follow their lead. So you ask those questions like who, why, what, where, basic journalism questions, and then just pay attention and just listen to what they’re saying as they say it.
Joe Keohane: A really advanced technique is by the quality of your listening, help them better articulate what they think or feel. And this is actually a pretty profound thing too. As a verbal species. We’re not particularly good at clearly articulating our feelings, language is a crude thing. So when someone is sitting with you and you just say, “This thing piss me off.” And that person’s like, “Yeah, that me piss off too. I have this other thing that piss me off.” And then you’re just not talking to each other. But if someone says like, “why? When did it start? When did it start pissing you off? How do you deal with it pissing you off?” That sort of thing.
Joe Keohane: Then it puts me in a space where I can really think about it. I can think about my answer, because I don’t feel like I’m being attacked, I don’t feel like I’m being grilled. I can sit there with this person who seems to be interested in me and who poses no real threat that I can tell, and I can think through what I’m saying and I can think out loud. So good listening, high quality listening can lure the speaker to a clear understanding of what they think, which is really cool and super valuable for them. And it’s also good for you because then you get a clear articulation of who this person is.
Jason Feifer: And why does all of this work? It works because of the history we talked about in the beginning of this episode. It works because we as humans are programmed for this to work. Because if you rewind millions of years, you find an animal, an animal that became us, that evolved in a decidedly different direction than the chimpanzee, because of course, now we know-
Joe Keohane: Chimpanzees are bastards.
Jason Feifer: And we are not bastards. Okay, some of us are bastards and some of us are worse than bastards, but as a species, we evolved to be collaborators and connectors. And as individuals, most of us have that capacity. We may have forgotten it and we may be unpracticed in it, and it may be buried under a rational fear, but it is literally the reason that our ancestors were able to build the world that we were born into. And if you choose to look at it this way, that means that we have a dormant, super power inside of us all.
Jason Feifer: Do you want to thrive in an ever changing world? Well, think of the untapped bridging capital around you. The potential collaborations, the insights, the things that you cannot do alone and that you need others for, and that others need you for too. Joe started his quest by asking, if we naturally want to kill strangers, then how did we end up living the way we live? And the answer is, we do not naturally want to kill strangers. We naturally want to connect with them.
Jason Feifer: We are small parts of a big hole. And yes, we are fractured. And yes, putting us back together is not easy in any way, but we know where it starts, and it starts by talking. And that’s our episode. If you want to learn more about strangers, I strongly suggest picking up Joe’s book. Again, it is called The Power of Strangers, and it’s by Joe Keohane. Also, I think that you will love an episode of my podcast from about a year ago called The Mystery of the Shared Earbuds, which is about how two strangers connected in a way that defies stereotypes. So please go check that out.
Jason Feifer: And before we are done here today, I am going to share one more insight from Joe. It is about what happens when you visit a tribal culture that is totally cut off from the rest of the world and you tell them that out in the modern world, strangers sometimes kill each other. You want to know what they say in response? It’s pretty fascinating. But first, do you want to feel more optimistic about the future? I have a free audio course that can help you do it, and you can find it by going to Jasonfeifer.com, J-A-S-O-N-F-E-I-F-E-R.com, and clicking on the Free Training button at the top.
Jason Feifer: While you’re there, you can also see more of my work and get in touch directly. I promise to reply. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram, I am @heyfeifer, @H-E-Y-F-E-I-F-E-R This episode was written and reported by me, Jason Feifer. Sound editing by Alec Baileys. Our theme music is by Caspar BabyPants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. And thank you to Adam [Sacrilege 00:42:00]. This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better.
Jason Feifer: And is looking to support scholars, policy experts and other projects and creators whose focus is on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that is you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for law, economics, history, political science, and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. Again, that is cki.org. All right, now, one more bit about strangers. Although we are built for collaboration, it is of course true that strangers can be dangerous. Strangers kill strangers, but historians think that for most of human history, killing strangers was actually pretty abnormal.
Jason Feifer: It isn’t in our nature because practically speaking, it was counterproductive. If you are in a hunter gatherer society, you need to be able to move around and cooperate with others. Starting fights with them only limits your options, which in unpredictable terrain with an unsteady food supply could be the difference between life and death. And you can see this mindset today when speaking with traditional cultures that have no interaction with the modern world.
Joe Keohane: Anthropologists, Polly Wiessner, who studied a lot of traditional societies. And she was with the Ju/’hoansi in the Kalahari Desert. And she was mentioning that sometimes in America, people kill strangers, and they thought it was hilarious. They were like, “Why would you kill a stranger? That doesn’t make any sense?” One of them was just like, “Yeah, I could kill my brother if I had a problem with my brother, but why would you bother killing a stranger? There’s no upside to it. He doesn’t have anything you want, what are you going to do?”
Jason Feifer: So, what are you going to tell a stranger next time you talked to one? Maybe you can tell them about this podcast. Anyway, that is all for this time. Thanks for listening. I am Jason Feifer, and let’s keep building for tomorrow.