When living in Chicago, I noticed that people don’t make eye contact with strangers on the street. I assumed that in such heavily populated areas, people preferred to keep a bubble of personal space between themselves and others. Upon moving to a small rural community, I noticed that everyone waved hello when driving by. It was almost as if they were pleased to see another human on an otherwise unpopulated road.
My father had a wave protocol when driving. If you passed someone you knew, you gave an open hand wave. If you weren’t sure if you knew them, you held up your fingers while keeping your hand on the steering wheel. If they were a stranger, you still acknowledged them by holding up one finger as you passed by. I don’t know if he created the protocol but it seems like a warm gesture.
Perhaps people who live in large urban areas are more prone to think of “stranger danger.” It is the idea that all strangers can potentially be dangerous. It is most often used as a teaching tool to keep children safe, but don’t most of us feel threatened by the unknown or unfamiliar?
The problem is that we can feel cut off from others, even while surrounded by people. In the US, health experts warn of a “loneliness epidemic.” Loneliness can increase the risk of depression, heart disease, dementia and premature death.
To combat a lack of a social connection, psychotherapist, Traci Ruble started “Sidewalk Talk” which trains volunteers to listen empathetically to strangers. They put up signs on the street that say “Free Listening” next to chairs facing each other. This is a community listening project that has grown to 1000 volunteers in 29 US cities and 10 countries. She believes that we as a society desperately need more face-to-face contact. She wants people to look less at their devices and more at others’ faces.
Another group hosts “Tea with Strangers” in New York, in an effort to help people feel less isolated. It was founded by Ankit Shah who moved from New York to California’s bay area without any social connections. He asked his Facebook friends to ask their bay area friends if they’d like to have tea with him, a stranger. It has turned into an international movement in 15 cities. They invite five strangers to chat for about two hours over tea. Their goal is to make cities feel like neighborhoods. Rather than ask, “what do you do?” the host may ask “What surprises you?”
Interestingly, in spite of social media, young adults in the UK are much more likely to report feeling lonely than those aged 65 and over. Half of the people surveyed claimed to persistently feel lonely or left out.
Hosted groups such as these seem to have a better success rate than simply talking to strangers. Olivia Petter in the UK challenged herself to talk to strangers every day for week while riding the tube in honor of Loneliness Awareness Week. She’d ask someone sitting next to her how their day is going, or what their name is. It didn’t go well. She was unable to sustain a conversation for longer than a minute. But if you can pull it off, research indicates that there is a positive impact for your own and other’s well-being. You might both feel happier than you would think. Other studies have shown that talking with strangers is surprisingly pleasant. No one wants intrusive attention. Don’t be creepy. But a pleasant hello might be better received than you think.
Personally, I like the idea of tea with strangers. Would anyone like to join me for tea?