These were my last few encounters with strangers in New York: A woman shoved a pamphlet about hell under my nose while I ate a sandwich outside the library. A European couple asked if the C would take them to Hoyt-Schermerhorn. A woman on the street complimented my dress, and a woman on the subway yelled at me because the fibers of my sweater brushed against her arm.
None of these interactions had a significant impact on my mood. They made for a mild annoyance, a neutral interruption, a pleasant moment, and an uncomfortable subway ride, respectively.
But according to Brooklyn resident Kio Stark, author of the new book When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You, connecting with strangers can create an extraordinary amount of meaning and joy. It can reduce racism and foster societal harmony. “Talking to a stranger is, at its best, an exquisite interruption of what you were expecting to happen when you walked down the street or rode on a bus, shopped at the grocery store or wandered around a museum, whiled away some time on a park bench or waited in a long, slow line,” she writes. “When something unexpected happens it calls you to full attention, turns your awareness outward to the world … You are present in the moment. And to be present is to feel alive.” Her TED Talk, urging jaded urbanites to engage with the strangers around them, has been viewed nearly a million times.
The New York City Stark inhabits is a veritable playground of whimsical butchers, gregarious baristas, and witty taxi drivers. She roams the streets of Brooklyn courting these fleeting yet apparently life-affirming interactions —complimenting strangers’ shoes, eliciting her neighbors’ life stories, asking a cashier how his day is really going.
She points to a series of studies suggesting that talking to strangers can improve everyday urban experiences like riding the train, buying coffee, and walking around. In 2014, psychologists from the University of Chicago assigned one group of commuters to talk to the strangers beside them on their next subway ride; another group was told to enjoy their solitude; and a third group was instructed to act however they normally would. The first group ended up enjoying their commute the most — even though they predicted the opposite. They were nervous about breaking the ice, and often expected (wrongly) they would be ignored or rebuffed. In another study cited by Stark, Starbucks customers who agreed to treat their baristas like friendly acquaintances reported more positive experiences than people who were told to prioritize efficiency while they purchased their coffee.
These studies have been taken as a rebuke to city dwellers — and to New Yorkers in particular. “New research suggests that New Yorkers — residents of America’s unhappiest large city — might be happier if they acted less like New Yorkers,” Matthew Hutson wrote for Science of Us. Another New Yorker chastised herself, in Business Insider: “As a born-and-raised New Yorker, I’m an expert at ignoring people,” wrote Shana Lebowitz, who says this study prompted her to rethink her antisocial ways.
Stark understands why the boundaries she stretches, and sometimes violates, came to be; cities could not function if residents were obliged to engage every passerby in a heart-to-heart. “Just because someone is near you, or interacting with you by necessity, that doesn’t mean you owe them access to your inner life,” she writes. In order to coexist peacefully, citizens follow a code of behavior sociologist Erving Goffman labelled “civil inattention.” By making brief eye contact with strangers and maintaining a pleasant expression, we recognize each other’s humanity without imposing hefty demands on everyone’s time and emotional resources. “We acknowledge that we briefly share space and we preserve distance, we relieve each other of the necessity for interaction,” Stark writes.
Yet if we challenge these norms and initiate more honest interactions, Stark believes, we are rewarded not only with individual joy, but with greater societal and political cohesion. According to the “contact hypothesis,” a positive interaction with a member of a different racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group can lessen bias toward the group as a whole. But research — which she cites — also shows that a single negative interaction can have a much greater impact: “[I]ntergroup contact may be naturally biased toward worsening intergroup relations rather than improving them,” she admits.
Stark issues a disclaimer at the outset of the book, clarifying that while talking with a willing stranger is good, talking at a disinterested stranger (i.e., “street harassment”) is bad. But it isn’t always so easy to discern someone else’s willingness to chat; signals like the duration of eye contact are subtle, and the line between harassment and what Stark calls “street intimacy” is not always so clear. Over the past few years, street harassment has become a major feminist issue, with some activists portraying public spaces as a battleground for women. In 2014, an undercover video of a woman being catcalled as she walked around New York went viral. Just last month, a blog post by an Australian pickup artist, counseling men on how to talk to a woman wearing headphones, drew ridicule and outrage across the internet. In some states, aggressive forms of catcalling are illegal.
Part of the argument against street harassment centers not on the sexual nature of catcalling, but on the imposition: the assumption that a stranger is willing to be interrupted, to engage with another. Certain overtures that can qualify as street harassment — saying “hey,” or complimenting an item of clothing — are not so far off from those Stark recommends. So what distinguishes an instance of street harassment from an invitation to “street intimacy”? The tone of voice? The gender or presentation of the speaker? Which brings us to the elephant in the room: As a petite woman, Kio Stark stands a better chance at having her overtures well-received than, say, a six-foot-tall black man.
At the end of the book, Stark prescribes a series of “expeditions” to help her readers practice talking to strangers. Ask someone for directions even when you know where you’re going, she suggests. Ask a stranger to draw you a map and give you their phone number to call in case you get lost. For someone claiming to promote honest and authentic interactions, this seems like an unfair way to wrangle strangers into conversation. Stark, who teaches in the “Interactive Telecommunications” program at NYU, has been assigning these exercises to her students for ten years.
These exercises reveal a self-centered worldview: Strangers are there to boost your mood or give you funny anecdotes. Do those Starbucks servers — already compelled to perform emotional labor — find the customers’ efforts at conversation as delightful as they did? The researchers didn’t ask. Similarly, in a recent New York Times piece, Stark advises travelers to ask locals where to eat, where to sit, where to shop. “Keep asking until you’re too tired to speak,” she writes. Tourists on vacation may get a kick out of this, but locals trying to get on with their day may find it less charming.
An alternative theory, of course, is that I am just unfriendly. But I resent the suggestion that by walking around with headphones, I’m depriving myself of meaningful experiences. I might be engaging emotionally with music, or intellectually with a podcast, if not verbally with the strangers around me. And if Stark’s ideas catch on, I might even be wary of people who ask for directions.