The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We’ve stopped talking to strangers. Here’s why we should start again.

Passengers move about the platform of the 59th Street subway station in New York on Aug. 13. (John Minchillo/AP)

I like to talk to strangers.

Or, maybe I should say, I liked to talk to strangers. Given the opportunity, I’ll yak with people I encounter walking my dog or those sitting next to me on a plane or train. I’ve heard about financial woes and career successes, and given and received advice on childrearing and medical care with people I’ve met once and never seen again.

But the past 18 months have not been good for people with my inclinations. Masks donned for protection make it all but impossible to share a smile with someone only momentarily in our orbit, which is often the signal someone is open to an approach. Social distancing hardly encourages transitory conversation — most people don’t, after all, shout chitchat at others waiting in line for coffee or to pay at the farmers market.

This loss isn’t specific to me, though. Transitory connections are good for all of us, as people and as a nation.

In-person encounters allow us to experience life from others’ perspective. As journalist Joe Keohane put it in his recent book, “The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World,” talking to strangers, even for a few seconds, makes us “better, smarter, and happier people.”

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Keohane documents in painstaking detail how more connections, even brief ones, made with people we don’t really know — think postal workers and baristas — enhance our daily contentment.

But these interactions were declining even before the pandemic. The age of social media and inequality is not a friendly one. Consider: One study that I’ve written about found that the wealthier individuals are, the less they looked at fellow humans they passed on the street. Another study, cited by Keohane, paired students for simulated job interviews. Turned out, the wealthier conversation partner was generally less socially engaged. Academics believe the more money people have, the less they believe they need other people — and, all too often, act accordingly.

Yet connections are something humans crave and whose absence we notice, even when the relationships that lapse weren’t particularly close. (Personally, I’ve long been convinced that the modern obsession with dogs — one I proudly share — is partly about our need for human connection and a way of obtaining it. Anyone who walks a dog regularly knows that the query “Friendly?” checks both human and canine temperament.)

Social media is often portrayed as a substitute for intimate and casual companionship but offers no such thing — as anyone sitting in a train car amid passengers absorbed in their phones can attest. It narrows our networks to people who think like us, which ultimately can lead to extremism in diet, politics and other areas. Facebook says its goal is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” but the platform has deepened divisions and isolation for many.

And in-person discussion has powerful abilities to bring people together. For all the reach of digital ads, many pollsters and policymakers still engage in “deep canvassing,” a form of political outreach in which people supporting a particular position — say, abortion or immigration — knock on doors and ask voters why they believe what they do. They listen without expressing judgment, ask about times people showed or received compassion, and share their own experiences. These conversations have been shown to change minds.

In other words, it’s good for society when people talk to others who are not just like them. It can promote personal and civic welfare. It can make for more open-minded individuals and allow us to see and better accept people who differ — in politics, class, race or otherwise. Talking to strangers, Keohane notes, “can even reduce prejudice, cool off partisanship and help mend fractured societies.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that covid-driven isolation has deepened our national divisions. These days, what once would have been considered rude behavior is encouraged in the name of self-protection. We limit our social networks and minimize talking to neighbors. It’s now acceptable to admit our co-workers’ casual interruptions interfered with our output. And what happens when our bubbles become normalized? We no longer even need to encounter the underpaid gig worker delivering dinner. Instead, they leave the order at the door and send a text announcing its arrival.

It sometimes seems that social distancing provides an excuse to avoid the sort of interpersonal contact that many people find uncomfortable. But it’s worth remembering that this discomfort can be key to our collective thriving.

Loneliness surged during the pandemic, and so did reports of depression. The sense of malaise, sadness and anger in some quarters, even as society lurches back, is almost certainly related, at least in part, to our continued lack of in-person connections. Here’s a thought: Try speaking with strangers and casual acquaintances again. It can offer a quick pick-me-up in the near term — and might help reduce broader tensions.

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