The vital art of talking to strangers

Hello Stranger. By Will Buckingham. Granta; 336 pages; £ 16.99

The power of strangers. By Joe Keohane. Random house; 352 pages; $ 28. Viking; £ 16.99

Fracture. By John Yates. Harper North; 348 pages; $ 28.99 and £ 20

AAttitude towards strangers He tends to follow familiar patterns. Children are taught never to talk to unfamiliar adults, especially those considered unreliable by their parents. The onset of adolescence and early adulthood causes an explosive desire to interact with people of all kinds, especially those who cannot gain family approval. Whether the resulting encounter is sexual or social, they provide a thrilling escape to Frisson.

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Social circles generally tighten as people find life partners, form households, and produce their own offspring. I do not have time anymore. New friendships are often based on sharing the burden of child care. Some people cannot regain their youthful enthusiasm through unexpected contact. Even if the work of the parents is reduced and the tendency is reduced, the professional work is expanded. In old age, even though curiosity and charisma remain intact, weakness makes it more difficult to make accidental new connections.

But that’s not all. From middle age people can experience the joy of random encounters, but it’s short and it kind of gets nervous. It may be just a smile, or a coincidence of hitting an emotional spot. Or it could be a surprisingly deep conversation on a plane or train, or a life-affirming surge of mutual understanding even though the caller is never seen again. This aspect of foreign promises and dangers has captivated storytellers, from the joy of “easy encounters” and “before sunrise” to the ruin of “strangers on the train”. Knowing that the exchanges are punctual can allow for a delicious frankness and without restraint.

In the age of covid-19 and Zoom, time series models are distorted. Strangers literally play a role as the source of oncoming infection, instead of vague possibilities and risks. It should be officially avoided during the blockade. Yet the young are dangerously long and still long, due to the ecstasy of fellowship with anonymous crowds as well as with nervous individuals. People of all ages have come to miss the human stimulus of busy high streets and trains, or the pleasant sense of camaraderie of moviegoers and theatergoers.

So now is the right time for three books on meeting strangers. Will Buckingham writes a moving memoir about finding solace in traveling and speaking in places such as Myanmar, which is culturally distant from his native England, after the death of his life partner. American journalist Joe Keohane argues that empathetic communication with strangers is essential and can change your life. John Yates, a London-based youth charity operator, says deep divisions in Western society make it impossible for people to even casually reach out to classes, religions, ethnicities and generations. I’m afraid.

All three authors have made sweeping generalizations of the evolution of human society, from hunter-gatherers to the Homeric era and beyond. But it is even more interesting to look back at the way people live and communicate today, using their personal experience and scientific research. In different ways, they all create two separate linked points. First, meaningful interaction with new people can be very rewarding, but it is a skill that must be nurtured and can easily be lost. Second, the self-estrangement of modern Western societies means that for many, conversations with certain fellow citizens seem meaningless, unwanted, or eccentric. The second problem exacerbates the first problem: if you think of others beyond the pale, why bother to know them?

In Britain and the United States, political divisions struggle against tribal divisions, as both Keohane and Yates point out. Brexit supporters and opponents live in separate groups. Republicans and Democrats see each other badly and are not disagreeing American compatriots. The other side of these is strangers to each other. Buckingham focuses on the joys and pitfalls of meeting in remote areas where the stakes are low because his acquaintances are temporary – in a vacation share in Helsinki or on a trip to the Balkan Peninsula. But like the other two, he says the vigilance of strangers is neither new nor insurmountable.

The face looks ugly when you’re alone

Keohane and Yates give advice on how to get along with strangers. Keohane describes an exercise in which a group of Republicans and Democrats were persuaded to overcome stereotypes and see themselves as rounded individuals in very difficult situations. They asked themselves good questions and were trained not to call their names. Yates discusses a form of national community service that encourages young people to mix with other groups and generations. Both have simple micro-solutions that readers can apply to their day-to-day relationships. Remember to take the best of others and have a story that most people want to tell. He reacts philosophically when a friendly approach is rejected.

Some of the most sophisticated forms of interaction between strangers occur in chronically fragmented societies. Consider, for example, the countryside of Northern Ireland and parts of the former Ottoman Empire, such as Lebanon, where residents lived in separate communal silos. The inhabitants of these places develop the perfect antenna for the affiliation of strangers and adjust their remarks accordingly, so that strangers cannot enter. Subsequent exchanges occur within well understood parameters, including the feeling that social categories are resilient and that comfort does not change them. However, tact allows people in hostile camps to make friends and make friends.

All three authors tend to exaggerate their ability to interact easily to stop conflict. But at least it’s true. The ability to engage with new people in a civilized, humane and meaningful way is a prerequisite for social peace, although it is not sufficient. This shows the half-hidden cost of covid-19. Educated children on screen. A teenager bouncing off the wall. Adults working from home; Lone retirees: More or less everyone’s social skills are atrophied, affecting not only individuals, but perhaps the structure of society.

When the blockage is lifted, people return to a world of accidental conflict. Some are enthusiastic and some are calm. Most people have a strange and new feeling after a year of hibernation. The lesson from these books is that easing restrictions is not a coveted opportunity for you to reconnect with the people you love and look like. She also restores freedom, long taken for granted, even if it is rarely used, and learns that it is very different. ■■

This article was published in the printed books and arts section under the heading “Comfort for foreigners”.

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