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Why we don’t talk to strangers and how one campaign is trying to change that

Commuters make their way on the escalator at Angel underground station on March 5, 2012 in London, England.
Commuters make their way on the escalator at Angel underground station on March 5, 2012 in London, England.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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Londoners traveling on the city's often overcrowded Underground subway system are not known to be particularly outgoing, but there's a campaign afoot to change that.

An unidentified group is giving out Tube Chat badges encouraging people to strike up conversations with their fellow passengers. They've already earned the ire of Transport for London, which said it is unhappy that the group has appropriated the Underground's official logo on the badges without permission. The badges are being distributed with a flyer stating people will benefit from a daily chat.

"I do think that talking with strangers, when it’s voluntary and situational, is a great thing, says Kio Stark, who describes herself as a 'stranger enthusiast.' "It has emotional benefits for the individuals who are talking. It can have social benefits for the public good as people come to greet each other and think of each other as more human, the more we interact with one another."

Stark adds, however, that no one likes to be told what to do, and she thinks that a campaign like this might come off as somewhat tone-deaf in London because the English have a different relationship with public interaction than Americans do.

Behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk thinks it could be hard to make this work in an urban setting where there are constantly lots of strangers.

"First of all, you’re going to have to be constantly thinking about what kind of interaction it’s going to be. Should you smile? Should you look at them or not look at them? It uses up a lot of resources in your brain to have to do this."

Weinschenk and Stark both say that another obstacle is how certain people view and value what they see as their alone time on the subway or bus ride home, and worry that making people feel obligated to talk with strangers instead of just listening to music or reading a book could disrupt social norms and create awkwardness.

AirTalk listener Edda in Hollywood Hills says she talks with strangers all the time and never gives it a second thought.

"I’m from Europe, and I used to do it there. I talk to people on the elevator, I will compliment women, I will comment on men. I talk to people when I’m standing in line and it’s always something positive or funny, and everyone walks away smiling and waving. I’ve never come across anything but positive feedback!”

Emily in Silver Lake, however, called to share some skepticism about how successful this campaign would be.

"I think talking should be such a natural habit and I don’t think we need to wear a badge. The badge we wear is our body language. If somebody is facing open to you and their chin is up, you can strike up a conversation easily. I think having a forced campaign is doing the opposite of what we want to do, which is be humans."

Then, there are those like Anne in Sherman Oaks, who called to say that for her, silence is golden.

"I’m a highly-sensitive introvert. There’s 20-30 percent of us in the country that are like that. I actually feel that the world is already way too social and way too loud. To have something like this campaign implemented would be horrific for me."

Instead of a badge and a campaign, Weinschenk offers up a couple of other suggestions for ways to increase stranger interaction.

"I think instead of the badges, what I’d be more inclined to try is one of two things: one is to actually have things happen, like music, an event, or a performance that everyone is experiencing and might want to talk about together. Or, why not do an augmented reality like Pokemon [Go], you know? You could do electronic badges.”

Would you participate in a campaign like this? When are you open to talking with strangers and when are you not?

*With Files from AP


Susan Weinschenk, a behavioral psychologist and author of How to Get People to Do Stuff; she tweets @thebrainlady

Kio Stark, self-described stranger enthusiast and author of the forthcoming book, When Strangers Meet; She writes, teaches, and speaks around the world about stranger interactions; she tweets @kiostark