Remember hand shakes and small talk? The lost art of living with strangers

There should be a new word for that strange mix of hope and alarm inspired by the sight of a post-lockdown crowd. How lovely to see Wembley and Wimbledon’s Centre Court almost full. But do people have to stand quite so close together? Must their singing be quite so lusty? Do they really need to put each other in friendly headlocks when someone scores? Well, yes – that’s what fans do at sporting events. But as life opens up, many of us have forgotten how to behave around those we don’t know. The etiquette must be relearned. How far apart should we stand? When can we chat casually with strangers again, if we ever did it in the first place? Is shaking hands now abolished? The politics of mask-wearing, already fractious, will become more so as shops, buses and trains fill up.

Covid has shone an unforgiving light on our already strained relations with strangers. Recent surveys reveal a steep decline in social trust and hardened attitudes towards immigrants, refugees and others deemed to be outsiders. The post-cold war capitalist dream of a borderless world has ended in a wave of wall building and the strict policing of borders and migration routes. Our broken politics and culture wars mean that conversations between strangers on contentious subjects often move quickly into rancour and name-calling.

Living so much of our lives online doesn’t help. Social media, with its culture of oversharing and its weird, hybrid tone of public-private utterance, brings strangers together in chaotic ways – lurking, eavesdropping and joining in on each other’s conversations. One effect is the staggering presumption with which people will gatecrash into the lives of strangers to tell them that they are stupid and wrong. It is also now considered normal to take and post photos of people in public places without their permission, just to call them out for some supposed infraction. Online, we forget that strangers are as flawed, fragile and complicated as we are. Instead they have turned into irritating fictional characters in the endlessly related story of our own lives.

Most of us will be seeing more strangers soon. So it is helpful that several new books imagine better ways of living alongside them. George Makari’s Of Fear and Strangers and Tom Lutz’s The Kindness of Strangers are out this autumn. And Will Bucking­ham’s Hello Stranger: How We Find Connection in a Disconnected World is published this month, as is Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World. These two books are quite different in tone and approach but, as their subtitles suggest, the prescription is the same.

Carla Suarez Navarro is applauded during her first round match at Wimbledon, 29 June 2021.
Carla Suarez Navarro is applauded during her first round match at Wimbledon, 29 June 2021. Photograph: Javier García/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

Keohane draws on an abundance of new research in social psychology which finds that connecting with strangers helps to dispel partisanship and categorical judgments, increase social solidarity and make us more interested in and hopeful about our lives. Buckingham’s account is more personal. After losing his partner to cancer in 2016, he found respite from the torpor of grief in passing encounters. A few words traded with a barista, or a wry look exchanged with a fellow passenger after a train was cancelled, assured him that the world still turned and life went on. “Strangers are unentangled in our worlds and lives,” he writes, “and this lack can lighten our own burdens.”

In antiquity, hospitality to strangers was a sacred obligation. Keohane cites archaeological evidence that suggests that this obligation emerged around 10,000 years ago, in the first settled human communities. Travelling strangers were valued because they brought trade, news and gossip. The duty to be welcoming was also rooted in a deep sense of human fragility – an awareness that, in a world without safety nets, anyone could find themselves adrift and in need.

Ancient Greeks lived by an exacting code of xenia, roughly translated as “guest friendship”. The Greek word xenos, from which derives our xenophobia, means both “stranger” and “friend”. Xenia obliged a host to offer a stranger their best seat, best food, best bed and, when they left, parting gifts and onward transport. Odysseus only makes his long way back from Troy to Ithaca because of the islanders he meets who follow this code. When today’s Greek islanders gave food and shelter to those arriving in dinghies from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, they were honouring this age-old contract.

Many myths and folk tales tell of seemingly lowly strangers who are revealed as noble, royal or divine. Zeus masquerades as a travelling beggar, rewarding those who welcome him and punishing those who don’t. In the Bible, people take in and feed wandering strangers who turn out to be angels. In Japanese folklore, the ijin, or “different person”, is a dirty beggar or poor strolling player who is really a prince, priest or god. The stranger in disguise sets a test of our humanity – a test that many of us today would fail.

Buckingham and Keohane both come across in print as enviably outgoing and energised by chance meetings. One narrative thread of Keohane’s book sees him learning from experts how to talk to strangers, but he doesn’t seem to need much help. He provides some templates for starting conversations, none of which I am brave enough to use. (Example: “Sorry, I know we’re not supposed to talk to people on the train, but I really like your coat.”) Buckingham’s outlook was formed by being raised in a vicarage that served as both family home and community hub. He is the kind of person who lets strangers couch surf in his house, then leaves for Bulgaria or Myanmar on a whim and quickly bonds with a local who offers him free bed and board and sends him on his way with a bus ticket to his next destination.

Fortunately, neither book is a preachy petition for us to be like this too. Buckingham understands that “our responses to strangers are always double – a quiver of anxiety and possibility, excitement and fear”. This ambivalence sits inside words like guest, host, hospitality, hostility and hostage, which all share the same root. The Latin hostis means guest, stranger and enemy all at once.

As Nietzsche wrote, “the object of hospitality is to paralyse all hostile feeling in a stranger”. The code of xenia blends solicitude with indebtedness in a way that can easily congeal into insult and offence. The Odyssey is full of bad hosts and bad guests. Instead of feeding Odysseus and his men, the Cyclops declares that he is unafraid of Zeus, the protector of strangers, and eats some of them instead. Odysseus murders the squatters in his Ithaca home who have outstayed their welcome.

Wariness around strangers is natural. An infant will experience “stranger anxiety” from around eight months old, avoiding eye contact and crying in the presence of an unfamiliar person. Close attachments form the heart of our emotional life. In his recent book Friends, the evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar argues that there is a limit to the number of people we can truly care about. On average we have five intimate friends and 150 friends-in-general, the typical size of a hunter-gatherer tribe and a medieval English village. The limit is set by our cognitive capacities and the effort and time that go into sustaining friendships. Dunbar says ominously that “the important thing about friends is that you need to have them before disaster befalls you”. A close friend is far more likely to help you than a good samaritan.

A Syrian family walks to a temporary camp for migrants and refugees on Lesbos, Greece, September 2020.
A Syrian family walks to a temporary camp for migrants and refugees on Lesbos, Greece, September 2020. Photograph: Yara Nardi/Reuters

Not that having close friends and being friendly to strangers are antithetical. Strong friendships, Dunbar writes, “help us become more embedded within, and trusting of, the wider community within which we live”. And Keohane mentions new studies which point to the worth of “minimal social interactions”, not as a substitute for intimacy but as its complement. Strangers supply a refreshing and undemanding sort of human connection. A stranger can sometimes size you up in an instant, spotting the little tics and tells of your bedrock self that your friends have long since tuned out.

Since the middle ages, relations with strangers have shifted. Life in premodern times was lived more in public. Strangers often ate together at long communal tables, shared a bed for reasons of space rather than sex, and urinated and defecated in front of each other. Then, from the 16th century onwards, what the sociologist Norbert Elias called a “civilising process” took hold across Europe. For Elias, the key factor was the rise of the nation state and its claim of a monopoly on the use of violence. Social life was now safer and meetings with strangers were less likely to end in disputes and fights. Rules about how to behave in public became more demanding and self-constraining. People were more guarded around those they didn’t know.

The rise of the modern city compounded all this by throwing strangers together in conditions of physical proximity and emotional distance. In his classic 1903 essay “The metropolis and mental life”, the sociologist Georg Simmel noted the reserve with which city dwellers ignored their neighbours and dead-eyed each other on buses and trains. But without this reserve, cultivated in the permanent stage set of the city, Simmel thought that the urbanite would “come to an unimaginable psychic state”. Being seen and silently assessed by strangers was the modern metropolitan’s lot. A “blasé attitude” was their vital defence mechanism.

The anonymity of cities can be alienating. But it is also a miraculous achievement, allowing strangers to rub along together using only the fuel of benign indifference. The sociologist Erving Goffman coined the term “civil inattention” to describe the token ways we acknowledge the presence of others in public, from tiny head nods to fleeting looks. Goffman also deciphered the unwritten rules which decide when it is OK to speak to a stranger and what you can say. The main principle, he found, is not to say anything that might suggest you are insane. Never ask a stranger what day it is; it will immediately announce you as a bringer of confusion and disorder.

Now, in the non-places of contemporary life – chain hotels, airports, supermarkets with self-checkouts – we barely need to speak to strangers at all. Faceless instructions (insert your keycard in the slot, have your boarding cards ready, enter your PIN) replace human interaction. More and more, consumer transactions are offloaded to apps and algorithms. All they care about is your password and credit card details.

Lockdown and social distancing have accelerated these trends. Many of the things that sustain us, from food to entertainment, now come anonymously from some unspecific, contactless otherwhere, via touchscreen or mouse click. This otherwhere is peopled by a silent army of delivery drivers, supermarket stackers, warehouse order pickers and others doing the insecure, low-paid work of the gig economy. “Rendered invisible by technology,” Keohane writes, “the legions of strangers who serve our needs become little more than instruments for use, condemned to a permanent strangerhood.”

The invisible nature of much low-paid work has intensified the “liberal paradox”. This paradox, identified by the political scientist James Hollifield, has been a feature of American and European political culture since the 1980s. The free market wants cheap, mobile, flexible labour; electorates want less immigration. Governments try to keep both happy. The paradox was starkest in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. David Cameron’s government tried to restrict the welfare benefits and other citizenship rights of EU citizens, while continuing to depend on the supply of cheap migrant labour. We rely on strangers to ease our frictionless movement through the landscapes of consumerism, but prefer them to make no demands on us.

City dwellers avoid eye-contact with other passengers on buses and trains.
City dwellers avoid eye-contact with other passengers on buses and trains. Photograph: Richard Gardner/REX/Shutterstock

And yet we can’t cocoon ourselves from others indefinitely. In her book Precarious Life, the cultural theorist Judith Butler argues that we are linked to other human beings, including those we meet only briefly or not at all, by our shared vulnerability. We like to see ourselves as sovereign, self-contained entities, but every self is leaky and permeable. Just occupying a soft, malleable, mortal body makes us precarious. Our skin is porous, our airways are open and our senses are sharp. This exposes us not just to other people’s pathogens but to their desire, their violence, their neediness, their gaze. We are such inescapably social creatures that we can be wounded, or enraptured, by a mere glance from another person. “We’re undone by each other,” Butler writes. “And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

A stranger sticks a needle in your upper arm and you find yourself choking back tears of relief and gratitude. Why? Partly, I suppose, because that needle might save your life and help to return it to something like normality. But also because it renders visible (and momentarily painful) what was already there: an invisible thread of reciprocal care and shared destiny linking us all.

For all its faults, social media can be similarly edifying. There, in your timeline, runs an endless procession of people you will never know in real life, celebrating their own successes, sharing pictures of their dinner, spitting with anger at something you’ve never even thought about before, or voicing their grief and despair to anyone who might be listening. It can make for exhausting reading. But it can also pull you up short and confront you with your own prejudices and privileges. A stranger’s headspace is so surreally different from your own. Behind every profile picture is another life, another teeming brain busily processing its own unique reality. Strangers, Keohane writes, pass in front of us day after day as “vessels of unknowable cargo, containers of whole universes”.

We are storytelling animals. Every stranger holds out a little narrative nugget, a story we haven’t heard before. Odysseus repays the kindness of his hosts by offering the only gift he has: stories. In the stories they tell us, strangers are no longer the antagonists, caricatures or bit-part players of our own stories. They are fully fledged characters in their own right. Their stories remind us of the obdurate otherness, the sheer multitudinousness of other people’s lives. The reminder is not always a comfortable one. But it may lead us towards a complex, shared truth that is ultimately more enriching than the self-serving fiction.

Technology cuts us off from strangers, but it connects us with them too. There are apps that will help you install a backpacker in your spare bedroom for a night, or let you sing a karaoke duet with someone on the other side of the world, or call up a taxi driver who has arrived here from a war-torn country and will tell you the story of their journey in a 10-minute ride. Modern life doesn’t have to be cold and inhospitable. Now, as restrictions ease, many of us are torn – greedy for the buzz of packed rooms and full auditoria, but anxious. The heartening lesson is that this tension between caginess and openness has existed throughout human history. We generally find ways round it.

Immediately after his partner’s death, Buckingham opened up his house to near-strangers. Some instinct told him that this would help. He “invited people over to eat … The house became clamorous, hot and noisy … in this way, I started to restitch the torn fabric of my world.” He has a similar intuition that a pandemic is “precisely when we most need to resist the temptation of making our lives small”. Every encounter with a stranger is a leap of faith. All we have to go on is the same hunch that Buckingham has – but when our ancestors had it, they were proved right. The hunch is this: that when strangers come together in a generous and curious spirit, good things happen.

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