How to talk to strangers: a guidebook to bridging what divides us

5 months, 10 days ago

The more we do to interact with people who arent like us, the better off well be in the face of hatred that has become so visible thanks to Donald Trump

We seem to have lost the capacity to live with our differences in peace. The complex lines that divide us are now exposed, and they run deeper than we believed from what we see as the most pressing issues facing the country, to our values, to our understanding of race, gender and liberty. In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton herself find: We are a far more divided society than we realized.

In the Seattle Times, Nicholas Confessore and Nick Corasanti described the electorate as unprecedentedly segregated socially and geographically: About half of Americans now live near people more politically like them than not, whether in conservative rural townships or sprawling liberal cities. Few Trump advocates report having close friends voting for Mrs Clinton. Many Clinton advocates are more likely to see Trump voters on television than in person.

Republicans and Democrats have always been on opposite sides of political and social fencings. Whats new, what might feel insurmountable, is the degree of difference. The gap has widened very quickly over the past two decades. Weve arrived at perhaps the most difficult moment in recent history: approximately half the electorate have voted into the presidency of the United States an openly bigoted, racist, xenophobic, sexist, sexual predator. Divisiveness exemplified in an authoritarian leader.

In the face of pervasive, violent hatred that has become so visible and so normalized, people are struggling with “what were doing”, how to take action.

Republican and Democrat have always been on opposite sides of political and social fencings. Whats new is the degree of change. Photo: Julia Rothman

I want to suggest that many actions we can take is likely to be local: talking to the strangers we intersect routes with on the streets and sidewalks, in cafes and parks, stores and eateries. And the more we do this in places that require us to interact with people who arent like us, the very best.

People who arent like you and who you dont know exist for you only as categories. Abstractions. People who are different than you who you meet in physical space and talk with not at are individuals. The more we can have contact with people who arent like us, the more “weve been” challenged, invited, required to see them as humen, as specific people with a context. Hate breeds on seeing people as categories and abstractions.

When I say contact, I mean contact in person. Researchers at MIT found that our interactions in physical space with peers have a much more significant effect on our beliefs and sentiments than any other relationships, and more than our online lives. Physical interactions, researcher Alex Pentland wrote in Nautilus, are much better at changing sentiments than digital media and offer a greater opportunity of reaching consensus.

Our interactions in physical space with peers have a much more significant effect on our beliefs and opinions than any other relationships. Photograph: Julia Rothman

Sociologists, policymakers and urban planners have long analyse and supported an idea called the contact hypothesis, which, at its most fundamental, says that increased positive contact with people who arent like you decreases racism. Researchers recently turned their attention to the negative interactions catalogued in contact hypothesis analyses and found that a significant factor had been overlooked. A negative interaction carries far more emotional weight than a positive one and tends to increase racism. It takes so much goodness between people to overcome negative experiences.

Nothing about what is going on right now supports the idea that anyone should devote anyone else the benefit of the doubt, and I dont advocate empathizing with tormentors and racists. But every time I nod or say hello to a stranger in the past few days and they return it, I know some human decency remains.

In our smallest positive interactions with strangers in passing, we experience something called fleeting intimacy. Thats a brief encounter that devotes us a momentary feeling of connectedness, of belonging. I think we need to start using our interactions with strangers to make what Ill call fleeting alliances . We need to do the things that make for mutual acknowledgement of our fundamental humanity the smiles and hellos and brief dialogues in which we recognize a stranger as a person. We also need to recognize a new dimension to these moments. We can show each other we are not filled with hate. We can show we are allies and we will protect each other.

Kio Stark is the author of When Strangers Meet .

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