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‘The Power of Strangers’: What we gain from listening to others

In a Q&A, journalist Joe Keohane shares insights from his book “The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World,” including making the case that humans are, in his words, “an ultra-cooperative species.” He argues that “there’s a pessimistic reading of human nature as xenophobic. There’s this idea that we were small groups of people who hated and feared strangers throughout our existence until, by some fluke, we ended up together in cities,” he says.

“The reality is a lot more complicated,” he adds. “Civilization would never have happened if our default mode was xenophobia.”

“I think you can make a better argument that our default mode is cooperation,” he continues. “When you come to understand that none of this – modern civilization – happens without an extraordinary capacity for talking to strangers and working with strangers and living with strangers, then you understand the power of that aspect of our personality.”

Why We Wrote This

What does true communication look like? Author Joe Keohane says it comes through in-person contact that enables people’s full complexity to be seen – opening up a path beyond dehumanizing labels.

Joe Keohane grew up in Boston in the 1980s and ’90s, when “stranger danger” served as a national parenting mantra to protect children from potential harm. But from watching his mom and dad, he absorbed a different life lesson about encounters with unfamiliar people.

“My parents have always talked to strangers, and I’ve seen how it’s been super-enriching and exciting and fun for them,” he says. “They’re well into their 70s, and they’re still making friends.”

The example of their openness inspired Mr. Keohane as he worked on his first book, “The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World.” True to that subtitle, Mr. Keohane advances the idea that showing greater interest in our fellow unknown Americans just might remedy the country’s loneliness epidemic and mend its fractured body politic.

Why We Wrote This

What does true communication look like? Author Joe Keohane says it comes through in-person contact that enables people’s full complexity to be seen – opening up a path beyond dehumanizing labels.

The veteran journalist traverses evolutionary biology, psychology, theology, and anthropology as he seeks to counter the stubborn perception of humankind as a hopeless collection of warring tribes. In reality, he writes, we belong to “an ultra-cooperative species.” He travels to Los Angeles, St. Louis, London, and Helsinki to learn from experts in the art of bonding with strangers, and armed with their advice, he sets out to turn random interactions into meaningful moments.

Mr. Keohane, a former features director at Medium, spoke to the Monitor from New York, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on attitudes toward strangers, the value of listening in a culture of talking, and how even fleeting conversations with passersby can reaffirm our shared humanity. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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