"On the rare occasion I did go into a bar, I would just look at Twitter and feel my soul rot."
The Fingers interview with Joe Keohane, author of 'The Power of Strangers'
You know that thing where you’re at a bar and there are a lot of people around, and some of them are probably pretty interesting, and you’re drinking, but you’re alone, and you don’t know any of those people, so instead of talking to them you just ignore them and bury yourself in your phone? Me too. Why do we do that?
So glad you asked.
Today I’ve got an interview with Joe Keohane, author of the new book The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World. Joe is actually an old editor of mine; we worked together on some features at Thrillist and then again when he was editing at Medium. Joe and I spoke at length about The Power of Strangers. It’s a fantastic book, one that combines thorough research with narrative first-person reporting to answer a deceptively simple question: if scientists know that talking to strangers is good for us—and they do, neurologically and physiologically speaking—then why don’t we do it more often?
Having read the book this summer, I think Joe answered that question with humor and wit and humility and all that good shit. He also came up with a brilliant way of describing the antisocial posture we all assume when we’re alone at a bar, scrolling through our phones: “lowercase r’s.” I really like that. Good one, Joe.
Editor’s note: This newsletter is long, so it may get cut off in your inbox. Click the button that says “view entire message,” or just read it on the website. This transcript has been edited and condensed. The podcast version of the interview has a lot more banter and in-depth discussion, so listen to that too, if you’re interested. For a complete archive of Fingers interviews, click here.
Meet Joe Keohane, author of The Power of Strangers
Dave Infante, Fingers: OK! Joe Keohane, the author of The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in A Suspicious World. For someone who's never heard of this book, what's the logline?
Joe Keohane, author, The Power of Strangers: It's a book that asks why we don't talk to strangers, what happens when we do, and how we can get good at it. So that's the three-point pitch, basically. I started because I had an amazing conversation with a cab driver one night, and it kind of occurred to me that I used to do this more. I used to talk to strangers more. And for some reason, without really choosing to do it, I just stopped doing it. I stopped talking to people in bars, I stopped chatting with the barista, or whatever. Which I never did, like, habitually, but I did it enough to enjoy it, and to find it as a source of interest, you know? Sometimes it could be poignant, sometimes it could be hilarious, sometimes it was just a good way to pass the time. But I had stopped, and I hadn't chosen to stop. And I was wondering: what were the forces at work that made me stop talking to people I didn't know?
For me, it was like twofold. On one hand, I had a young kid and I had a demanding job. So I was just tired and stretched thin. And I didn't hang out as much as I used to, I didn't have as much time to just hang around the city. And so that put a real dent into my ability to socialize. And the other thing was just having the phone. So having an iPhone meant that on the rare occasion I did go into a bar, I would just look at Twitter and feel my soul rot. Do that for an hour and then leave without talking to anyone, which is like a really grim thing to do. Partly because social media is just it just makes you feel bad about the world and about yourself. But also because I'm surrounded by people I don't know. I'm sure they have good stories, and I'm sure they're good company. And I just put my head down like an idiot.
You have an incredible line in the book that speaks directly about being in the bar hunched over your phone. You describe people as “lowercase r’s.”
Right, it’s like a whole row of them. You walk into a bar, and it's like, everyone's just like [brain-dead zombie noise]. I felt really bad about that, because I really did have a lot of great experiences. Some chance encounters I've had with strangers have changed my life, they've charted a course for me. A lot of what I've done, what I've attained, has been the result of random interactions with people.
There is a passivity to the art of talking to strangers that I was fundamentally uncomfortable with.
So I wanted to solve it for myself, and I wanted to try to rebuild myself as a social animal, I wanted to start from zero, almost like I was running a marathon or something. And you can't run a marathon by getting up and running a marathon. You have to get off your ass and go for a walk first. So I wanted to replicate that training process, but for socializing. After years of withdrawing because of technology, because of COVID… recently, we've all kind of withdrawn from the world, and I think our social skills have gotten rusty. I wanted to get better at it, but I also wanted to understand every moving part of these interactions, from the things that keep us from talking to strangers, to the actual interaction itself.
For the book, you traveled to various seminars and workshops around the world to to teach rank-and-file civilians how to talk to strangers. At one of them, in the UK, you kind of tripped yourself up. Tell me about the difference between having an engaging conversation with a stranger vs. extracting information from them.
It's like a question of control. When you're in a journalistic context, there's goods that you need to get, right? You have limited time, you have to get what you have to get in order to get your story. So that means having an idea of what you're looking for going into it, and trying to find it. It's very active, and if you're a good interviewer, you're in control of the process. You have to be a little open and like, allow yourself surprise. But for the most part, like it's a “leaning forward” kind of kind of conversation.
So, I took a class in London from this woman, Georgie Nightingall, who's a communications guru who's very talented and brilliant, for three days to learn to talk to strangers. One of the exercises was a listening exercise. It's supposed to be an exercise about relinquishing control of a conversation. So your conversational partner, one of the other students, says something about their day, like: I like to make tea at nine o'clock in the morning. And you're supposed to just ask open questions about making tea, and let them get to something that tells you more about themselves without pulling it out of them.
But me, coming from the background I come from, I dug in, and in five moves, I had an existential statement out of her about like, what the tea represented to her. I was just like, There it is like! Got it! Only took me five minutes to get this! And then I went back to the teacher, and she was like, “Yeah, that's, you know, that's great. That's true, it seems, but um, I was watching, and you were like leaning over and interrogating [your partner].”
You were putting the fucking squeeze on this woman.
Right! So it comes down to control. For me, it's hard not to look for opportunities to control or steer the conversation. And the trick I found, and this has been found in tons of studies that have been replicated throughout the world, with all different types of people, that the way to do it is to let the other person lead. And to get comfortable with the fact that you don't know where this is gonna go.
Don't make it about yourself. Don't editorialize. Don't try to solve their problems. Don't judge Don't interrupt. Make eye contact, actually listen, and actually ask questions, and then just let it go. There is a passivity to the art of talking to strangers that I was fundamentally uncomfortable with. Learning to do it was really difficult. And I would imagine that it's really difficult for a lot of people to relinquish control.
The professors I spoke to, they all teach to they all teach in college. And every single one of them would remark on how hard it seems for their students to talk to each other. Their social skills just are not there. They're really uncomfortable with in person interaction. And the working hypothesis for why that is tied to technology. I think it's probably more complicated than that, but when you increasingly interact with the world through technology, you have a lot of control over the interactions you have. So the belief with like young people struggling with in-person communication, is that it's because they just don't do it that much. And they don't have the skills, they're necessarily and so it's, it's daunting, and they need to kind of rebuild those skills in order to do it.
A lot of people (including me, at times) might just be like, Well, what's the point of having a conversation just for the sake of having a conversation? That’s not immediately apparent to someone who hasn't read your book. So what are some of the upsides to talking to strangers?
Over the last 15 years or so, there have been a raft of studies by a dozen or so psychologists. They would send out study participants, and they would just tell them to talk to strangers. So you'd have two groups: one is instructed to do what they always do, and one is instructed to talk to strangers on mass transit and coffee shops, all these different venues.
We are hyper-social animals. When we're not social, we are unhealthy.
They've done this in Chicago and London, Istanbul, and lots of places. Overwhelmingly they find that though people are really pessimistic about doing this—people think it's gonna go badly, they're going to be rejected, they’re going to be boring—overwhelmingly, people have a positive experience. They find that people are much more receptive than they expect them to be, they find that the conversations tend to go much longer than they expected them to. They found that it came more naturally to them than they thought it would. It was more pleasant.
Then there were kind of bigger effects. They would come away from these interactions feeling happier, feeling less lonely, feeling more connected to their communities, even to like humanity at large. A lot of those benefits speak to a lot of the more seemingly intractable social and political issues we have today. Take loneliness. Loneliness is off the charts; rates of loneliness have never been higher for as long as they've been studying loneliness. People are deeply lonely. And loneliness is a catastrophe. It's a catastrophe for society, because it makes people politically crazy.
It’s a physiological problem too, right?
It's as bad as smoking! It leads to cardiovascular problems. It will kill you. We are hyper-social animals. When we're not social, we are unhealthy. Socializing is nutrition for us, it's food in a way. So though we interact with a lot of people kind of online, that’s like low-calorie interaction, right? It's not the same as interacting with people in person.
I was thinking of that joke in Idiocracy, how they started watering plants with Gatorade. Like yes, there's moisture going into the soil, but it's poisoning the plant. I don't think like social media is just pure poison, but it definitely can be. But when you do have interactions, you feel less lonely, that addresses a serious problem that people are spending millions and millions of dollars to try to address. It's becoming crippling for individuals and for society. People feeling like they belong to humanity, feeling like they belong to their communities at a time of transience and estrangement is really important. That sort of connection is really important coming out of COVID, where we've all been in our little spider holes for so long, that we're starved for connection.
It's like if all of a sudden, you weren't allowed to eat protein for a year. Imagine what would happen to your body. I think that's what happened to our mental health in a lot of ways. It was very, very hard for people. So you know, you can have all these benefits [from talking to strangers.] We can feel connected, we can feel calmer, we can feel more reassured, we can feel more optimistic, more trusting. There is enormous raft of benefits that are associated with this stuff. Even interacting with people from different groups, different political groups, different racial groups, a lot of research is finding that that can alleviate prejudice, it can alleviate polarization, listening to people the feeling of being listened to can reduce extreme political beliefs.
One of the things you didn’t get into much in the book was drinking. What role does alcohol have, if any, in bringing strangers closer together?
It's sort of like technology. There are good things and there are bad things about it. It's like having a smartphone: all of a sudden, you can call grandma whenever you want, but also someone can [use it to] blow up a commuter train in Spain. It's a double-edged sword. You can look at booze as a technology. The good stuff is that it lowers your inhibitions. People are really intimidated by the prospect of talking to strangers. When your inhibitions are lowered, you're less anxious, you're more likely to like take a shot and start talking to someone.
Your perception from the news and social media is that people are pieces of shit, and the world is collapsing.
The bad part is that it lowers inhibitions. Maybe you’re a little less aware of the effect you're having on the person. You might hold forth and not really listen to them, you might get aggressive or something. I mean, there are definitely a lot of issues associated with alcohol that can make these conversations a real pain in the ass. But I always find like, you know, having one drink or something on the bar and just feeling a little loose and just chatting with people who also feel a little loose is great.
I’m a guy, and it’s different for women. Interestingly, a lot of the people I spoke to who study talking to strangers and who advocate for it were women, specifically introverts. I asked them how they do this without feeling threatened, without putting themselves in danger. Most of them said, they don't do it in bars, although if they're with a husband or a friend, they'd be more likely to do it. Signals can be misread, someone they talk to could end up like being a little drunker than they expected, it could create a situation. I'm lucky that I don't have to worry about that so much. That circumstance is certainly different for people from different groups.
But I think, like anything else, used mindfully and carefully, it can be a great way to start having these interactions. And it's almost like it gives you proof of how well it can actually go. It trains you that people are not what they appear. We know this intellectually, but I don't know if we know it viscerally, really internalize, that people are complicated, people are surprising. And if you allow them to surprise you, they will surprise you.
You describe in the book about how that sort of adds nuance and adds dimension to people that are otherwise sort of flat stereotypes.
It’s cool to know that everybody's different, but that everybody's similar enough that you can talk to them. No one hews to the stereotype, and no one is impossible to talk to. Or, very few people are. When I was at Medium, I commissioned a package of 50 interviews with 18 year-olds, about being on the cusp of adulthood in like, 2018-2019. You kind of “cast” those sorts of things. You look for types. It's not super-attractive to think about that, but you do.
So we got like, the kid from Wyoming who's like a rancher. We get this get on the phone, and he's great. He lives out in rural Wyoming and he hunts with his dad and his dad's ranch and all this stuff. Smart, agreeable, good interview. But halfway through the interview, he says that sometimes he has to leave work early to go to dance class. And the interviewer was like, “Wait, what's dance class?” And he said, “Oh, ballet, I take ballet.”
I loved that. That’s a great example of what I so routinely find when I talk to people. We stereotype, we generalize, we think in terms of groups. So you go in thinking someone's going to be a certain way, and then they end up being that… and something completely different.
That experience is very humbling, too. You feel like a dipshit when you assume that the guy from Wyoming skins elk and lifts ATVs over his head on the weekends, then he tells you that he takes ballet. You feel like a schmuck, right?
Yeah, like “Oh you must spend your Saturdays pissing off of a tractor, am I correct?” He's like, “No, I'm actually a very talented ballet dancer.”
Yeah: “Uh, actually I'm a Rhodes Scholar.”
I love that complexity. It is humbling. It requires a certain amount of humility to allow for your worldview to be challenged in that way. It can be kind of disorienting, it can challenge your identity and your sense of your place in the world. But having positive interactions with all these fascinating people gives you a much more optimistic reading on what humanity is. What informs our perception of what humanity is? I think increasingly, it's the news, and it’s social media. As we withdraw from the physical world—which was exacerbated during COVID, but was underway before—our perception of humanity is colored by the news and by social media, which tend to be negative. I like the media, I am of the media, but it definitely plays up the negative stuff, and ignores the positive stuff.
So your perception, having consumed all that data, is that people are pieces of shit. They're violent, they're xenophobic, they can't be reasoned with and the world is like collapsing and burning to the ground. That's because you're getting a very limited dataset. When you're out in the world, and you're talking to people, you get a different dataset. And the research backs this up.
I always joke that like I came out of 2019 as the only person I know who feels better about humanity. Everyone else was just like, “Geez, wrap it up, this species is irredeemable.” But I had hundreds of interactions that were really pleasant. It didn't always go fantastically well. But it worked enough times that it stands as like a like a check against that sort cynicism or pessimism. It keeps me from becoming too cynical, which is definitely my tendency. It corrects that in a way that makes me feel a little bit more hopeful. Not in a blind-idealism way, not in a hippie sense. But in a way that I think that we do have it in us to fix these problems. We just have to actually do the work.
A lot of this research is based on studies that scientists have done with primates, chimps in particular. You describe something called a “howdy door.” What’s the significance of the howdy door?
So like you said earlier, I went pretty deep in the research. I wanted to go all the way back as far as I could. That meant looking at our closest genetic ancestors, which are going to be chimpanzees and bonobos. I don’t remember the exact number, but like, 99% of our genetic material is identical to chimpanzees and bonobos, so people always look at chimpanzees for insights into why humans are the way they are. But they never really look at bonobos, even though we are, you know, genetically, almost indistinguishable. So I wanted to understand how chimps and bonobos were with strangers, and chimps, it turns out, are super-hostile to strangers. So I wanted to find someone whose job it was to introduce chimpanzees to strangers. I found this woman, Joyce Cohen at Yerkes Primate Research Institute in Georgia.
We really do think that people on the other side of political divides are like subhuman, in a way.
The process, as it turns out, is super-drawn out and agonizing. You have to take the two chimps and put them in separate rooms, so they can kind of hear each other and that gets them used to the sounds. You have this door in the middle that they call the howdy door, so they can kind of see each other. And sometimes they see each other and they go crazy, and they need be separated. Sometimes they're kind of mad, and they kind of yell at each other, but they're not upset too much by the the existence of this other stranger. So they leave them in there and they watch them very closely to make sure they're not freaking out.
Over time, they open the door crack so they can like, touch fingers. And then sometimes they go berserk at that point. So they have to separate them again, and then start over but they very gradually get them closer to the howdy door, and then they open it a bit, and then they open it more, and hopefully in time the chimps can be together and they can forge an alliance. You can form a new group that way, but at any point, they can go berserk and attack each other because they've just really pretty keyed-up about strangers. I really like the howdy door. I use that as a metaphor for a group I spend time with the tried to teach Democrats and Republicans to talk to each other without biting each other's faces off.
The bonobo is different. Life was harder for the chimpanzees, they had to roam farther to get food, so the species over time selected for aggression. They became very male in that way. But bonobos, because food was all around them, the females could stay together, and they could form alliances that allowed them to repel male aggression. And it became like an upside-down version of the chimpanzee society where it became matriarchal. As a result, bonobos today are much less violent, much less xenophobic, like there are even studies that show that they prefer to share food with strangers over their own friends, because there's a benefit in expanding your your social network. And they'll do that by sharing with strangers.
The idea is that bonobos are domesticated themselves. There are very few animals in the world that have domesticated themselves, and humans have domesticated themselves. So the argument I made is that, yes, we tend to overestimate the control of our inner chimp, and we tend to underestimate the influence of our inner bonobo. We are like bonobos in a lot of ways, as long as we don't feel like we're under threat, or we're competing for resources. Then we tend to be more like chimps. We close ranks and we attack anyone who comes over the line.
What were your takeaways from the Democrat/Republican group you mentioned? What did your experience there tell you about the outlook for talking to strangers in a politically charged, resource-scarce environment?
When we feel safe, secure, and optimistic, we have an unbelievable, unmatched capacity to connect with people we don't know, connect with strangers, consider strangers fully human, all this stuff. like No other animal has this capacity. But when we're not comfortable, when we feel threatened, when we feel insecure, that's when people become xenophobic, and dehumanize the people who are either their actual enemies, or their perceived enemies. The really tricky thing is that there could be actual resource competition, where there's no food, there's not enough water, there isn't enough land, whatever. And that definitely sets off conflict and dehumanization.
But symbolic threats to squishier things like identity, tradition, way of life, that motivates people as much as actual resource scarcity, sometimes more so. Research has been done on xenophobia against immigrants, and you always think that it has something to do with economic factors. When times are hard, we tend to we tend to hate immigrants. But that’s not the case. It’s the symbolic threat. People start to believe that these new people are going to take something ineffable away from them. But when you ask them what that is, and like no one can answer that question. Because, you know, this stuff is protean, it’s always changing.
Braver Angels [the group] tries to reduce that sense of threat and dehumanization that happens with polarization. It was founded by Democratic and Republican political operatives, and they create conversations between Democrats and Republicans. I went to their convention in St. Louis in 2019. So Braver Angels creates the structure. This is very similar to the chimp facility that allows people to safely forge alliances and make connections. The way they do it is by not leading with politics, not leading with the divisive stuff, but instead, laying the groundwork before you can get to politics. And what that means is sitting down, explaining why you came to this thing, what you're interested in, what your interest is, who you are, where you're from, and then people will make small talk.
We deride small talk, but small talk is really important. When you're talking to someone in person, you kind of look for some sort of commonality, and when you find that commonality, you get a little more comfortable with the person. The person defies your stereotype a little bit, they turn out to be maybe a little more complex than you might have given a member of the other tribe credit for. We really do think that people on the other side of political divides are like subhuman in a way, that they're just following orders. They don't have free will, they don't have agency like we do. So when you do interact with people from the other side, it's really beneficial because it makes it more difficult for you to nurture that stereotype that they are less human than you are in a way.
The reason why human civilization exists is because we have the ability to cooperate with strangers.
At the beginning of this thing, people were uneasy, and they were skeptical, and they didn't think it was gonna work. At the end of it, it felt like summer camp. It was really nice. Braver Angels will never claim that this is a magic bullet. It's basically the work that needs to be done in order to take the first step towards rebuilding the country's politics.
The goal isn't to fix everything overnight. The goal is to be able to tolerate the sight of one another, and be able to work with one another on anodyne things like zoning, or fixing potholes, basic housekeeping stuff. It’s gonna take 20 years, if we're gonna do it, and I don't know if we're gonna do it. But you have to start with the little things, and then you can build trust, you can build little alliances, and in time, you can start to get to the bigger stuff. Now, some of the biggest stuff has a clock attached to it, no question about it. But I think that's the way it has to happen. I think we need to relearn the fact that the people on the other side are people, they are complicated. And we have to learn to cultivate the skills to talk to them. I'm confident that this is the way to do it. The question is, I just don't know if people are, are willing to do it.
You said at the beginning of the conversation that you came out of last year more optimistic than pretty much anyone else. You read the news every day. Do you still feel optimistic?
I think we can. The question is will we? It was really, really heartening for me to dig into the human capacity for cooperation with strangers. It's incredibly powerful. And it's the reason why we have cities. The reason why human civilization exists is because we have the ability to cooperate and communicate with strangers. All our societies are societies of strangers, unless you live in a tiny little town. More than half of the global population lives in cities, and cities are full of strangers.
So I think we can. I think we need to muster the discipline and the will to do it. The incentives are all to do the opposite. I don't know if people will, but I hope they will. I hope they read the book and they they come away feeling a little heartened about the potential that people have. I hope things get better. My skepticism and my cynicism bubble up from time to time. We'll see what comes of it. But I remain reasonably hopeful.
Joe Keohane’s new book, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, is available for purchase through The Fingers Reading Room.