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Talking With Strangers


Recently, I found the only available table in a small café of an independent bookshop and paused to decide how to spend a book token. A woman asked if she could sit opposite me at the same table, because there was nowhere else to go. After a few short exchanges, we settled into quietness, browsing the phones and books in front of us. It crossed my mind to start up a conversation, but I didn’t. I’m an introverted Englishman – what do you expect? But I was also conscious it might appear like I was chatting her up. Not a good look. In fairness, she didn’t initiate conversation either. So we sat there in silence and merely said goodbye to each other as I got up to leave.


The modern, urban western world is not set up for these encounters. The more people we cram into our spaces, the less likely we are to talk to one another. Time is limited and smartphones give the perfect excuse not to look up. We would overload ourselves talking to everyone we saw. There is suspicion to deal with, too. Maybe the 80s slogan ‘stranger danger’ still prevails. Sinatra sang ‘Strangers in the Night’ as a romantic ballad. Today it’s cause for a 999 call. The outcome is cities and towns full of people sitting next to one another on public transport, shopping along the same clothes rack and watching the latest movie release without exchanging a word.


The US journalist Joe Keohane set out to talk to as many strangers as he could in the space of a year, and to ask experts about why we don’t and what it feels like when we do. The results, in ‘The Power of Strangers’ (Viking 2021), tell a refreshing story. When we make a point of talking to people we don’t know, it has striking effects. We become happier, less anxious, more trusting, smarter (seriously) and feel more alive and engaged with our environment.


People are especially worried that when they talk to a stranger, that person will think less of them, looking down on their social inadequacy. Yet surveys show the opposite. And it works particularly well when we engage with another person in order to listen to them, asking open-ended questions that are not leading or threatening.


There are some accelerating trends today. We do not listen well to one another, talking over others online and offline. This makes for less empathy and openness to other ideas. Meanwhile, the algorithms of social media guide us into sheep pens where we do not graze with those who are not like us. And when we do not know others well, we impute all kinds of things to them which are wide of the mark.


The Bible and many other contemporary cultures are much more accepting of the stranger, seeing him or her as an opportunity to build connection, not a threat to well-being. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews even suggests that when we show hospitality to strangers, we embrace the angels. Life changing chance encounters litter scripture. Jesus met a woman at a water well. He really wouldn’t have spoken to her if he had followed social customs, but in doing so he turned her life around and unlocked a whole Samaritan community for the Gospel. Philip left the ferment of Jerusalem to walk the desert road to Gaza. He could have let a chariot trot past, but he talked with the Ethiopian civil servant and led him (and an uncountable number of Africans thereby) to Christ.


On the evening of his resurrection, Jesus came alongside two wistful erstwhile disciples on their way out of town. He asked them:


What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?


If this had been London in 2023, the likeliest response would be:


It’s none of your business.

By welcoming the question of this stranger, they soon saw him for who he was and were treated to probably the most privileged Bible study in human history.


The world would feel a different place if we all talked with strangers. It won’t change the world if we alone try it, but it will change our world. And the chances are that Jesus will sidle up, like he did long ago on that road to Emmaus.



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