Talking to Strangers Is Good For You

We have much to learn from conversations with people we don’t know: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Illustration of two strangers talking
Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

In many ways, The Odyssey is a story about talking to strangers. As Odysseus travels home after the Trojan War, he meets an array of new people—some hospitable, others violent. He relies on these new connections for shelter, but he also tries to get to know them, telling his own story and asking to hear theirs.

The experience of sharing so much with someone you don’t know is rare. Many of us never speak with most of those we see around us; we truly get to know even fewer. As the writer Joe Keohane explains in his book The Power of Strangers, this aversion is rooted in social norms (talking with strangers is simply not done) and the complexities of human psychology (we tend to underestimate how much we’ll like strangers—or them, us). But Keohane’s book also emphasizes a second point: Talking with strangers is good for us. The practice can bring a sense of comfort and belonging—positive emotions that we miss out on when we stay quiet. The author Kio Stark echoes this argument in When Strangers Meet, and provides advice on how to strike up such conversations. In a time characterized by widespread loneliness, which the graphic novelist Kristen Radtke explores in Seek You, these connections are more necessary than ever.

Yiyun Li, who’s written many books about the lonely and the outcast, doesn’t always talk with strangers, but she does stare at their faces. As she gazes at those around her, she tries to picture their lives—and the parts of themselves that they keep hidden. This kind of staring is also a vital part of her writing process: Li imaginatively crosses into intimate territory with her own characters by looking deeply at fictional people the way she does strangers.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

illustration of two giant heads in ships on a wavy ocean

Hanna Barczyk

The Odyssey and the Other
“What solace—or despair—resides in the unexpected relevance of this ancient poem, its encounters with Otherness thrown into high relief by the xenophobia of our time? Is it an enduring human trait to doubt one another’s humanity?”


illustration of two strangers touching hands

Richard Renaldi

The surprising benefits of talking to strangers

“Again and again, studies have shown that talking with strangers can make us happier, more connected to our communities, mentally sharper, healthier, less lonely, and more trustful and optimistic. Yet ... many of us are wary of those interactions, especially after the coronavirus pandemic limited our social lives so severely.”


man sitting on a bench

Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

How to talk to strangers

“A stranger-encounter is ‘an exquisite interruption’ to whatever expectations you had about your day. Go to work, and you know who you’ll see. Hang out with friends, and you know what to expect. But engage with a stranger, and at least something interesting might happen.”


illustration

Excerpted from Seek You, by Kristen Radtke. Copyright © 2021 by Kristen Radtke. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon. All rights reserved.

Why do we look down on lonely people?

“Through vivid images of people fumbling with house keys late at night, falling asleep on the subway, leaving a liquor store, [Kristen] Radtke shows how recognizable and universal loneliness is—but also how easy it is to remove ourselves from others’ loneliness, to turn theirs into an experience incompatible with our own.”


book page

Doug McLean

An uncomfortable trick for honest writing

“I stare at people all the time, because I like to imagine their lives by looking into their faces, looking at their eyes. You can tell so much just from a person’s face.”


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters.

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