Joe Keohane on his immersive new book, The Power of Strangers

Virgin Radio

15 Jul 2021, 11:40

The journalist joined the Chris Evans Breakfast Show with Sky to talk about his debut book, which looks at the benefits of having conversations with people we don’t know.

The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World is on shelves now. Joe told Chris, “While I was doing this book, I spoke to a lot of psychologists and sociologists and social scientists in general about what happens when we talk to strangers. Because we were taught to be very wary of strangers growing up, especially for me in the 80s in America, there were a lot of police coming into our classrooms and warning us that every single person we didn’t know was a threat to us. So this is something to get past. 

“But it turns out that, increasingly over the last 15 years, there has been a raft of research that shows that when we do talk to strangers, and this can be passing interactions or deep longer conversations, people report feeling happier, they report feeling more connected to where they live, they report feeling an enhanced sense of belonging.” 

The writer added, “There has even been research that shows it can lead to enhancing people’s empathy, it can improve your cognitive performance, which is kind of a crazy finding, and it can make people less lonely.”

The book contains practical tips described as circuit training for those looking to master talking to strangers. Joe explained one technique. “One really great tip that I got from a woman in London by the name of Georgie Nightingall was, when we interact with someone in a service environment... a waiter or a barista in a coffee shop... we tend to fall back on what they call ‘scripts’. A script is when someone says, ‘How are you doing?’ and you say, ‘I’m doing fine.’ And you say, ‘How are you?’ and they say, ‘I’m doing fine.’ And that’s the interaction. You don’t actually say anything, no information is exchanged. You don’t care about each other. You don’t learn anything. A trick that Georgie had was to be specific when you are in a situation where you might use a script. So when someone says, ‘How are you doing?” answer honestly. Answer specifically. 

“She gives a numerical answer. So when someone says, ‘How are you doing today?’ she says, ‘I’d say I’m about a seven out of ten.’ And then she’d say, ‘How are you doing today?’ This is the magic of communication, people tend to follow each other’s lead, so the person will see that she’s being playful, she’s doing something different here, and they will probably give a numerical answer themselves. They’ll say, ‘I’m probably an eight.” And then she’ll say, ‘Well, what will it take you to get to a ten?’ And maybe they’ll tell you a bit about themselves. Maybe their grandmother was sick and they are hoping to see her and they are hoping she feels better. And then you can start having an interaction. It’s a very quick way to get past what is a robotic interaction.”

One of the chapters in The Power of Strangers is called The God of Strangers. When researching this part of the book, Joe went through religious texts and learnt that a lot of Holy books have strong warnings against harming strangers. He explained, “It just tells you how important strangers are to the rise of civilisation over the years. If it’s baked into a lot of religious traditions and folk traditions, I mean, it shows you that it’s critical, right? We tend to have this pessimistic idea of what humans are like around strangers, but if we weren’t super-cooperative and super-communicative with strangers, then civilisation never would have happened.”

Chris asked Joe whether he thought people from North America were easier to interact with than British people. Joe responded, “I think Britain should give itself a little more credit. A lot of the experts I spoke to for this are from the UK. Yeah, There’s a belief that people, especially in London specifically, are less friendly than people are in the US. But Americans always find the British to be actually very friendly.” 

The writer went on to say, “It’s interesting though, I dug really deeply into where these cultures come from, why some places seem to be friendlier than others, and at first I thought it would have something to do with social trust, that they feel good about people, that they feel they can trust people, and therefore they are more likely to talk to them. It’s actually the opposite.

“Places that have histories of friction, of conflict, of weak central institutions, of tonnes of imigration and diversity, those are the places that end up being friendly. And the reason why, is that people needed a way to communicate to others that they were cooperative, that they were friendly. And because they couldn’t fall back on a shared language, or shared cultural norms, and because they did have to deal with each other because they didn’t have strong governments, they developed all of these ways of being friendly. They were more verbal, they were more expressive, they smiled more, they laughed more.” 

Joe continued, “You find these cultures of friendliness which arise because of friction, that’s what’s so interesting about it. We think that humans tend to fight when there is friction but, in many ways, we just become more social when things get difficult.” 

At the end of their conversation, Chris asked Joe if he could put one thing on a billboard to promote interacting with strangers, what would it be? The author said, “It is easier than you think. Everyone is so anxious about it, but everyone who does it, with a little bit of practice, finds that it’s really beneficial, it feels good, it makes your life better and it’s easier than you think.”

The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World is out now.

For more great interviews listen to The Chris Evans Breakfast Show with Sky, weekdays from 6:30am on Virgin Radio, or catch up on-demand here.