“I thought maybe I could just talk to people for two years and report back about what happened, but then I started seeing all this research and it started to explain why I enjoyed having these interactions.”
First, a disclosure. I know Joe Keohane, and not just from the interview we did for this look at his new book, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World. Many years ago he was the editor of this newspaper, called the Weekly Dig back then, who fielded some obnoxious emails from yours truly in the mid aughts, and instead of telling me to piss off did what no gatekeeper up to that point had dared, and invited this strange fool to join a cast of freaks that at one point included a septuagenarian intern who we met on the street.
I don’t just note my history with the author in the interest of transparency, but rather because I believe he sells himself a bit short in his modest self-assessment at the start of his book, before the attempt to morph into an athletically social stranger engager over the course of 306 pages. Keohane is a born connector, a curious cat who’s always made a habit of contacting interesting people and asking them out for a beer. In short, he’s no stranger to strangers. This project, however, is an attempt to break out of his comfort zone of fellow writers, friends of friends, and honky tonk musicians; as he puts it early on, “I had set out on a mission to become good at talking to strangers, to build myself up as a much more social creature, and as it turned out, I had a lot to learn.”
Of course, Keohane started researching and writing at a time when, as he describes, “political polarization, segregation, discrimination, and equality have conspired to turn fellow citizens into strangers.” “The fact is,” he writes, “in America anyway, we simply cannot stand the sight of one another.” But this is no veiled anti-Trump punch or MCU moral play, nor is Keohane clamoring for kooky optimistic kumbaya cacophony, in which Americans from every corner of the spectrum celebrate their similarities and pretend all is well. There are chapters on “Talking to Them” and “How to Talk to Enemy Strangers,” to be sure, and both may prove quite challenging to stubborn partisans unwilling to recognize intelligent life over ideological walls (ahem!). But while the mere acknowledgment of decency across the divide is enough to scare off some readers, from righty hatemongers who, let’s face it, would never read a book like this anyway, to left-wingers who would scoff at the idea of a white able-bodied dude writing about approaching folks on the street and saying, “Hello, I’m Joe,” that would be a shame, because this survey is for them as well, and thoroughly considers the experience of talking to strangers from a planetful of unique perspectives.
In his travels, Keohane meets a cast of characters fit for a Douglas Adams expedition, from introverts and extroverts of every shade and bent who he converses with to varying degrees of success, to the experts, sociologists, and interpersonal gurus he turns to for inspiration, including one in London he describes as a “wizard at this” who “once started a conversation with a man on the Tube simply by pointing at his hat, smiling, and saying, simply, ‘hat.’” (In a section that hit home for me, this same mentor, Georgie, “delicately explains” to Keohane “that while ‘it’s clear you’re a person who asks questions for a living,’ everything about my body language suggested I was looking for something to pounce on. I asked questions too quickly, she said. I was leaning forward. This wasn’t a conversation; it was an interview.”)
Within months, what started as an idea born out of “the most amazing conversation” with a taxi driver in his current home of Brooklyn spun into a concept on its way to a publishing contract with Random House.
“I thought maybe I could just talk to people for two years and report back about what happened, but then I started seeing all this research from the last decade or so that was very interesting, and it started to explain why I enjoyed having these interactions,” Keohane says. “Why did I feel good? Why did I feel a sense of relief?”
Eventually, he came up with a simple plan of action: “I just asked three questions—Why don’t we talk to strangers? When will we? What happens when we do?—and got to chase them all over the place. I went as far as I could to answer those questions. I ended up sitting naked in a sauna in Helsinki with a Finnish philosopher … on a train for 48 straight hours with a bunch of southerners … at a convention where they were trying to teach Democrats and Republicans how to speak with each other.”
Even though innumerable books are technically by and about strangers in that they’re penned by people who at some point phoned, emailed, or showed up on a subject’s doorstep, as Keohane discovered, there isn’t too much out there about actually engaging people. Unless you want to take advantage of, manipulate, date, fleece, or kill them, in which case there are dedicated sections of your local Barnes & Noble.
“The closest I could come up with was some folklore books about strangers, and there are books about religious conflict that use the word stranger,” Keohane says, “but really this research only started happening like 15 years ago, where people started wondering what happens when you talk to strangers.”
He continues, “The book involves a lot of social science and a lot of psychology papers. That stuff’s interesting if you know how to read them but they’re death if you don’t.”
While Keohane has his criticisms of the social sciences, The Power of Strangers is nonetheless buttressed by data via the likes of Gillian Sandstrom, a psychological scientist “studying social interaction to help people connect to each other.” And by various studies that show how our “expectations for interacting with a stranger is that everyone is going to shoot you down and it’s going to be a fucking disaster.”
“Part of it is stranger-danger propaganda and that we think everyone is a mass murderer because that’s what has been taught to us for decades,” Keohane says. “America invented that one, that’s our gift to the world—a statistically unfounded terror of everyone you don’t know. But when your expectation is that everybody is going to kill you, then there’s nowhere to go from there but up.”
“These two philosophers have this idea of a moral dial,” he adds, “and when the dial is cranked all the way up, we make big social networks and we can talk to people and all of that, and when it’s cranked all the way down in the other direction, we become genocidal lunatics. And what turns it is the sense of threat. When we’re threatened, we refuse to accept the other side’s humanity.”
As irony would have it, Keohane learned that these phenomena can apply to the very individuals studying them.
“There are definitely factions,” Keohane says about those who interrogate the way we interact with strangers. “Another thing I discovered is that academia is totally broken, and is not going to solve anything because none of these people are talking to each other. If you want to understand why we don’t talk to strangers, you have to be a psychologist, you have to be a sociologist, you have to be a political scientist, and you have to be an evolutionary biologist. … But if you’re coming out of grad school and you have a PhD in sociology and evolutionary biology, people will just be like, Sorry, we don’t have a department for that, so you don’t get a job. They have a tiny little patch of land, and that’s what they farm. I would call people and they would say, This is happening, and I would say, But why is that happening? And they would say, Sorry, that’s not my field.” This is the only book that really takes all of it into account.”
In his own personal journey, Keohane has become a social gymnast, even chatting it up with outgoing NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio at their neighborhood bagel shop. My former editor even offers advice: “You have to have a sense of timing. You can’t just be in a crowded bar and walk up to the bartender and be like, So, what was your childhood like?”
Beyond interactive skillbuilding, it’s clear he has come to appreciate strange faces around him in ways that he never imagined. As Keohane writes in a footnote, “When I was starting this book, I used to tell people that I believed if you talked to a stranger—really engaged—that you will discover that everyone has at least one meaningful thing to share. At least one! I realize now that that is a monstrously condescending thought and offer my apologies to the world.”
As for the rest of us …
“For anyone interested in digging more deeply into the topics addressed in this book,” he writes, “there is plenty there to help get you started. Now, please: Go talk to a stranger.”
Joe will be reading from and signing copies of his book at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge on Thurs, July 22 starting at 5:30pm. Head over and be sure to introduce yourself.