How the Power of Strangers by Joe Keohane changed my life.
A Little Story
Once upon a time, a young warrior was walking down the street while smiling at people he saw. He tried his best to get a smile back, but it wasn’t easy, especially in the city. The ones that smiled back he gifted with a “hi”. This was a bad day because no one smiled back. At the end of the road, he saw a woman pushing a baby buggy. It was impossible not to see her, as she was wearing pink pants, a pink scarf, and pink headphones. Those headphones got his attention. Why would you put headphones on while you are with your baby? What if the baby cries and you don’t notice? The warrior kept walking with the woman already out of sight, but not out of his mind.
What might have been her reasons for wearing headphones? A scenario unfolded in his head:
The Pink Lady
“I see a red door and I want it painted black…” I always get energy from this song. It’s my favorite song of The Rolling Stones: Paint It, Black. This line almost perfectly described the situation I was in now. The only difference was that the door was pink, not red. The door opened, I put off my headphones and put on my wide smile. “Hi, nice to meet you, I’m the new cleaning lady”, I said while entering. I had never seen a house like this. Why would you only have pink stuff in your house? The table is pink, the walls are pink, and the oranges are pink. There was one exception: the handsome man who had opened the door for me was dressed in black. Quite mysterious. Black is also my favorite color. “You can already start cleaning the living room,” he said, “In about an hour my wife will come back, and she will show you how to clean the kitchen,” He disappeared via the stairs. So, I started to do what I could do best. I wiped away the gray dust from the pink stuff. It was kind of meditative. I wondered if that was why everything was pink. One hour later, the woman arrived. She was glamorous, had blond hair and of course, was completely dressed in pink. Her eyes were wide open, she blinked a lot, and when she smiled you could count all her over-the-top white teeth. She didn’t arrive alone. She carried a little baby that was crying the whole time while she entered the door. When she put one foot in the door, all of a sudden, the crying stopped.
I was still wondering why everything was pink. But I didn’t have any time to ask for it. She was already taking the cleaning products out of the drawers while explaining to me which products I could use for the sink and which other ones for the furnace. I was surprised to see that the products weren’t pink. They were white with green and blue. “Oh, and one more thing, cleaning lady, be sure that the baby can’t see you or those bottles,” the pink lady said. “Why?” I asked. The pink lady looked at me as if I asked the dumbest question in the world. “Well, as you can see. Everything is pink here in this house, except for the washing products, my husband, and, well… you.” I looked down at my clothes, and I only saw black. “And why is everything pink? Why not orange, or blue, or …black?” I asked. “First I want to correct you,” she said, “Black is not a color, it is the absence of color, or all colors together, depending on how you look at it. My husband taught me that. He studied physics, so he knows. Smart and handsome, aren’t you jealous?” she added with a little wink. And jealous I was. “But if everything is pink here, why does your husband wear black?” I asked. “It’s quite annoying, I know. I’m sorry for that” she said while looking with a fake smile at my clothes. “Everything is pink here for the baby. The baby really is the most important thing in my life, and I do everything for her. She hates every other color than pink. When she sees blue, green, or orange, she cries. Black is the worst. Then her head turns red, and she starts bumping her cute little fists around. So that’s why I’m wearing pink as well. I don’t want her to cry when she sees me. And my husband, well, he only wears black and sometimes white. He really is an all-or-nothing kind of guy. For him, the baby is not that important. His whole life is about work. And he probably also thinks pink is not manly enough. But now I have to go. Do you remember which product to use for the kitchen floor? Bye!” and off she went.
The next time I was cleaning at the pink house, I saw the husband more and more. It seemed like every time I came, he spent more time with me. Eventually, he even started to ask me about my music taste and if I had any siblings. With every question, he got a bit closer to me. I could see a twinkle in his eyes. Then he asked which colors of clothes I had. “Only black, of course” I answered, and he kissed me. It was a long kiss and after it, he started talking directly, “Can’t we just run away with the baby? I love the baby; she is everything to me. But I hate my wife, I hate pink. I really have to get away from here” My heart filled with happiness, and I said, “Of course we can. I love you” and we kissed again. “You’re so handsome and smart,” I continued,” But how can we run away with the baby if it starts to cry when it sees us? Your wife will hear it,” He thought a bit and answered, “She’s doing a nap now, you could get some pink clothes from her. With those, the baby won’t cry when it sees you. I still have to make some calls, so I’ll see you at the train station” and off he went.
I think I had never done something anything as thrilling as stealing pink clothes. I opened the bedroom door as quietly as possible. Despite the pink lady’s elegance, she snored like a wild boar. I looked into the drawers and only could find pink pants, a pink scarf, and pink headphones. My jacket was still black, but I hoped that the pants, scarf, and headphones would do the job. I put them on, and while being surprised the pants fit perfectly, I went to the baby. When she saw me, she was looking at me with a doubting face. I think she was thinking about whether to cry or not. I decided not to find out and to leave with the baby as fast as possible. I pushed the baby buggy out of the house and started walking as fast as possible. The baby started to cry, so I decided to listen to some music on the headphones. While crossing the street, I saw a young guy smiling at me. That seemed suspicious, so I started to walk faster. With every step, I got happier and happier. Finally.
I didn’t arrive at the train station. I arrived at a parking lot. I saw my boyfriend sitting in the orange car. He is the one I really love. I opened the door and said: “Finally, we have a baby”. I got in, slammed the door, and off we went.
The Real Story
The young warrior has a lot of imagination, that’s clear. But what was the real story? The warrior wanted to find out. A week later, he went walking again. By chance, he encountered the pink lady. This time she wasn’t using her headphones. They were just hanging around her neck. His curiosity was bigger than his fear and he stepped towards her, smiled the best he could, and said “hi”. The lady noticed and a “hi” escaped from her smiling mouth.
- Can I ask you something?
- Sure, go ahead.
- I was just curious. It might be a very weird question to ask, but what if you’re wearing your headphones and your baby cries? You probably won’t notice, right?
- You little ignorant boy. I’m wearing these headphones in fact for the health of my baby.
- Because they’re pink, and your baby hates other colors than pink?
- No, of course not. What a weird idea! It’s because my baby has some problems with her little heart. My headphones are connected to a little microphone that can record her heartbeat. The doctors told me to go as fast as possible to the hospital if I heard an irregular heartbeat.
And that’s when the warrior realized that you don’t have a clue about the real story until you follow your curiosity and talk to strangers.
Why you should talk to strangers
Starting conversations with strangers still is one of the most difficult things for me. Every time, there is this little hurdle of Resistance to overcome. It is especially difficult for introverted people. However, the thing that kept me going was knowing about all the benefits. Here I list some of them:
- A conversation helps you think. It helps both you and the person you’re talking to.
- Good conversations are way more interesting than scrolling through your social media feeds.
- You get a different perspective on a lot of things.
- You’re training your social skills.
- It is often easier to talk about very personal things to strangers because you know that if you want, you will probably never see them again.
- On the other hand, it is the perfect opportunity to get to know new people. They might become your best friend, and sooner than you imagine.
- When you often start conversations with strangers, people will notice your openness and start conversations with you.*
*That’s something Keohane mentioned in his book as well. When I first read it, I was very sceptical about it. But after experimenting with this for a while, it happened to me as well. There were even people asking me for advice. How weird.
Efficiency vs Human Interaction
I’m recently back from a trip to Peru, which changed my view on a lot of things. I think in our western world, we’re very used to using technology to help us out. For example, if we don’t know how to reach our destination, we search on our GPS. If we need a place to sleep, we search on booking sites. Self-scans in supermarkets are replacing cashiers. I think scanning ourselves is a good thing, only not in that way. Let’s look at ourselves in the mirror and see who we have become.
There is another way. In Peru, for example, they don’t have or use all that technology. The applications don’t always work, the websites aren’t complete, and the cashiers still have their job. This might seem less “developed”, but I don’t think it necessarily is.
What solved all my problems when I was in Peru were connections, contacts, and human interaction. I got sick in the middle of the jungle with the closest pharmacy on a boat ride of 3 hours. The local people arranged everything I needed to get better. I wanted to find a cheap, relaxed alternative to a partyholic hostel. No problem, just ask the lady at the market who is making your breakfast. She does some calls, and you have it. It’s another way, and a more fun way.
The Best Advice
Some examples of following your curiosity:
- What book are you reading? (When you see someone reading a book)
- What’s the name of your dog? (When you see a dog owner)
- What’s the Spanish word for cushion? (When you’re in Spain and genuinely interested)
- Where are you from? (When you’re in an international setting)
- Do you work for the military? (When you see someone with short hair and a camouflaged backpack)
Important to note that in some instances it is a good idea to use a preframe. A preframe is a way of showing the stranger that you know the unwritten rule of not talking to strangers. For example, instead of asking directly “What book are you reading?” you could use a preframe before it like “Excuse me, I know we’re not supposed to talk to each other in trains, but what book are you reading?” or “Hello, I’m really curious and interested in books. So, excuse me for asking, but what book are you reading?”
Strange(r) Conversations I Had
My first real conscious and genuine conversation with a stranger was actually one of the best ones. I was waiting for the train, and I saw a lady wearing a mouth mask with the face of Sanda Dia** painted on it. I asked where she got it. She told me where, and we didn’t stop talking. She told me about her grandchildren, her medical problems, and also about the times she caught couples having sex at the police office.
There was the woman that got a pentagram tattoo at an older age because she believed in higher powers. However, she didn’t want people to see her as a witch, so she decided to have a rose tattooed over it. She told me she normally doesn’t tell this story to strangers.
Another time, there were two boys from Afghanistan who actually started to talk to me. They asked me (in Dutch) how they could improve their Dutch. At that point, I recently taught myself to speak Spanish, so I had a lot of tips for them.
Last but not least, I once asked a group of French tourists in Peru how to get to a certain taxi stop. This turned into having breakfast together. From that breakfast on, I didn’t leave them for the rest of my trip because they were the best travel buddies I could ever wish for.
** Sanda Dia was a young student that died during a baptism for entering a prestigious student club. It caused a lot of commotion in Belgium.
Look a stranger in the eye. If you have eye contact, smile and say hi. Ask how their day went, or better: how their day could be better. Try to find something which surprises you about that person. Share something personal yourself. Try to make the connection. Cross bridges. Just gradually try to get as far as you can.