Think of Conversation as Travel

Within every individual, there is an entire world within them, a universe of experiences, knowledge, joy and adversity. Think of conversation as travel, as an exploration. And just like actual travel, a deep conversation is also an adventure, an opening to new ideas and other ways of seeing the world.

“Almost every crisis we’re facing right now is a crisis of belonging.”

—Joe Keohane

I haven’t always talked to strangers, but I try more often now. At our local grocery store, the kind person bagging groceries always asks the same series of questions. “How heavy would you like your bags?” “Would you like your milk in a bag?” “Would you like your cleaning products in the same bag with your produce?” “Would you like your ice cream in a separate bag?”

I understand they are being polite. I usually tell them, “You can decide. You’re an expert. You have much more experience. I trust you.” Then I can go back to asking the clerk about her tattoo. That’s another level of interaction. Try asking a complete stranger about their tattoo. A few years ago I never would have done this. Are you kidding? For many people a tattoo is a sacred icon, a cherished memory, a badge of identity. I wouldn’t dare.

I was wrong to assume people don’t want to talk about their tattoos. A tattoo is a powerful and permanent reminder of an event or expression of identity. In my experience, people light up with enthusiasm if I ask. It’s their daughter’s birthday, their life motto, their favorite quote, an ancient symbol. Tattoos reflect powerful emotions and life choices. I’ve never yet met anyone unwilling to tell me the story of their tattoo.

There’s an expression in social psychology called the Lesser Minds Problem, which is short-hand for the common, impatient and reflexive assumption we make about unknown people. Namely that strangers:

  1. Have less world experience than we do (“They’re so foolish!”)
  2. Make decisions that are less informed because of their lack of experience (“They don’t know what they’re doing!”)
  3. Have a less nuanced and unrefined understanding if the world because of their lack of experience (“They don’t understand how the world works! Idiots!”).

If I have a headache and it is painfully debilitating, and then you tell me you have a headache, I may likely think, “Sure but it’s nothing like this headache!” Our own subjective pain is usually more painful than someone else’s. Which is why almost everyone buys “extra strength” pain medication. We believe our experiences are deeper, more meaningful, more enlightening, than other’s experiences.

In a research paper called “More Human Than You”, Nick Haslam and his colleagues show that we ascribe more human characteristics to ourselves than strangers. When asked to evaluate how curioussympathetic or imaginative a stranger was compared to themselves, participants consistently described themselves as possessing more of these human nature traits. People tend to see themselves as more dimensional, and more mentally complex, than the strangers we encounter in the world.

The obvious secret to finding the humanity in others is to talk to strangers so they’re not so strange any longer. When you interact with people, their humanity becomes undeniable.

With over 60% of younger people (18-25 years old) now experiencing moderate to severe loneliness, we need to recognize that connecting with other humans is an essential human need, like breathing, exercising and thinking. In Joe Keohane’s new book The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, he offers ideas on how to break the silence, connect with others, and enrich understanding.

Start by finding safe places to start a conversation with a stranger. The “cosmopolitan canopy” is an expression coined by sociologist Elijah Anderson at Yale University to mean safe public and semi-public places where starting a conversation isn’t considered weird or too out of place. Coffee shops, libraries, grocery stores, public squares and markets are all environments where initiating a conversation isn’t too odd or off-putting.

Shared experiences are also good environments. If you’re both watching a baseball team winning, or your local high school team losing, you have a shared point of departure.

Answer greetings honestly. A few years ago my mom died of cancer. Within an hour of hearing the news I went for a walk by myself. A neighbor walked by and asked, “Hi, how are you?” I hesitated and then told her the truth. My mom had just died. My neighbor gave me a hug and we spoke about the fragility of life. It’s the most meaningful brief interaction we have ever had, and yet to this day we always share a kind moment when we see each other in the community. And I believe that kindness can be traced back to that one moment of human honesty.

Perhaps one of the most accessible tips Keohane gives is to break the script. Our script is the pro forma things we say every day to talk, and yet not talk. We say Hello, how are you? as a throwaway comment to fill dead air. We don’t actually intend someone to answer. Try breaking the script and actually answering the question truthfully. “Oh, I’m alright. I didn’t sleep too well but I had a fun yoga class. I’d say I’m about a 6 or 7 right now.

When you answer truthfully, it’s a cue to the other person that this could be interesting. This could go somewhere. It’s playful, audacious, and an invitation to deepen the conversation. Take a chance. Open a conversation with someone new.


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