Imagine you die. You wake up in a world only made up of people you remember.
“All your old lovers. Your boss, your grandmothers, and the waitress who served your food each day at lunch… It is a blissful opportunity to spend quality time with your 1,000 connections, to renew fading ties, to catch up with those you let slip away. It is only after several weeks of this that you begin to feel forlorn. You wonder what’s different as you saunter through the vast quiet parks with a friend or two. No strangers grace the empty park benches. No family unknown to you throws breadcrumbs for the ducks and makes you smile because of their laughter.”
This scenario of a potential afterlife was envisaged by novelist and neuroscientist David Eagleman in his short story Circle of Friends, which he wrote over a decade ago. Eagleman told me there have been multiple shared readings of this tale about missing strangers during the Covid-19 pandemic. As we have retreated into the cocoons of our family and friends to stay safe, the glaring absence of those on the periphery of our lives has prompted more people to reflect on the significance of strangers.
When I was a reporter in South Africa, I was travelling along a remote country road in the Free State with a BBC colleague, Milton Nkosi who is from South Africa. We were lost. Milton, who has a reputation for knowing someone in every corner of the country, wound down the window and embarked upon a conversation with a woman standing outside. How are you, how is your family, how are your parents? The woman then gave us directions. I laughed as Milton’s reputation was enhanced, only to find the woman was a total stranger. Milton explained it would have been impolite and disrespectful to ask for directions without establishing a proper connection.
However, in much of the developed world people consistently overestimate the level of discomfort they would feel if they were to reach out to someone they don’t know, even in pre-Covid times. Nick Epley at the University of Chicago has devoted much of his academic life to investigating our relationship with strangers. Epley became intrigued by his fellow commuters’ attitudes. Why did they ignore each other every morning? Was it that family and friends are beneficial but strangers are dangerous, or rather we expect them to be? Epley conducted an experiment, pre-Covid-19, in which participants were told to either talk to no one, carry on as usual or make conversation with whoever sat next to them. He discovered what he termed an “anti-social paradox”, where people consistently underestimated how much they would enjoy talking to strangers.
For one day in June 2019 I hosted a BBC Crossing Divides On The Move day with eight UK public transport companies encouraging their passengers to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Posters and public announcements helped give the passengers an excuse to reach out and strike up a conversation with a stranger. British people are famously reserved, but Epley replicated his Chicago experiment that day and found “Brits enjoyed talking to strangers just as our American participants did.” The longer people had talked the better they felt, even if they expected to be happier in solitude or thought themselves introverts.
Many people may feel hesitant about striking up a conversation, not knowing what to say. They could take advice from a book, the Art of Conversation, written in 1867. “Prepare for conversation by storing the mind with interesting matter: history, not forgetting the history going on at the present time, remarkable crimes and trials, and biography particularly of celebrities.” That advice was for people taking journeys in a shared carriage with strangers. At the time individuals couldn’t imagine joining a carriage without speaking to the people with whom they were sharing the journey.
Beyond the mask
Wearing a mask, vital to protect the health of ourselves and those around us, alters the way we make a connection. New York University neuroscientist Jay Van Bavel tells me that our brain processes faces within a few hundred milliseconds of seeing someone. In that micro time, we determine if the face is a friend or foe, if they look friendly or menacing. In cultures that aren’t used to face coverings, learning to communicate effectively could take some adjustment. (Read more about how masks affect our interactions.)
Van Bavel suggests the need for a powerful marketing campaign to help people understand the function of masks and enable us all to see them in a new light. Indeed, thousands of commuters in Japan wore masks every day pre-Covid, not because they were hypochondriacs, but because they had a cold and wanted to protect the needs of the people around them. Reframing mask wearers as people who have chosen to be considerate of those around them can make us feel a measure of generosity and warmth to them.
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