Why You Need to Talk with Strangers on Events

You probably know the feeling, a network event where you don't know anyone, and would rather hide in a corner than talk with strangers. Kio Stark explains why it is important to talk with strangers and how to do it.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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You probably know the feeling, a network event where you don't know anyone, and would rather hide in a corner than talk with strangers. Kio Stark explains why it is important to talk with strangers and how to do it.


Hi Kio, welcome to our studio.


Hello, nice to be here.


Hi. I saw your TED Talk about talking with strangers. Why is it we are so afraid of talking with strangers?


Oh, that's such a great question and I think it varies from culture to culture. But the broadest answer to that question is we're afraid of talking to strangers because we don't know how to read them, we don't know how to perceive them. We're not sure how to tell if they have good intentions. We're not sure how to tell who we might be. So one of the things we tend to do to solve that problem is slot people into categories. In the US it would be: are the white? Are they black? Are they brown? Are they male or female? Are they old or young? These kinds of things. And that's a kind of shorthand or shortcut that really stops us from experiencing people as individuals. So I don't recommend it.


Okay. In your talk, you also mentioned you did several experiments yourself. In your opinion is very important that we should speak with strangers. Why is that?


Sure. I think that they're two reasons, and I go into these in more detail in my book which is called When Strangers Meet. But the kind of summary is there are two different types of importance. The first one is very personal for our individual selves. Which is, if you think about it, nobody would argue with, we all need to feel connected, we all need to feel like we belong somewhere. We all want to feel acknowledged by other people as a human. And those are things that are parts of a feeling of intimacy. The way I like to talk about these interactions that we have in public that are brief is pleading intimacy. So it just happens for a moment. It's not necessarily about a continued relationship. It's a greeting, an acknowledgement. It makes you feel momentarily connected. And I think that's very powerful and it's something that enriches us, and makes us feel individually good.


I like what you’ve said, in the beginning: I think it varies very much depending on the culture you're in. Because there are cultures where they do that spontaneously, and there are other cultures who look just the other way around when you see somebody coming.


Yes. You know I did non-scientific anecdotal research about this. I collected stories from everyone I know who had spent time in other parts of the world. For example what you're talking about with the culture where it's just what people do, I would think of that as a culture that has more of a tradition of hospitality. And the secular Middle East is a place where that's very very expected of people. If you did not greet a stranger it would be considered rude. That's just one example of a kind of global difference. I was also told - and this is quite anecdotal - but I was told that, in Denmark people are very hesitant to talk to strangers and do try to avoid it. And people told me funny stories about somebody needs to get off the bus, but they're tucked behind other people, and they'll just wait till the next stop instead of saying 'oh excuse me I have to get out'. So again, anecdotal but [***emblematic? 03:50] I think.


Yes indeed, indeed. We are making television for the event industry. This is kind of a big problem on network events for example. There are a lot of people but most of the people stand there looking at their feet, or want to hide in a corner.




How can we change that?


Well, that's a large project but I think understanding why people are uncomfortable is an important thing. And I will say I love talking to strangers. I do it on the street, everybody's like, 'Kio, come on, we've got to get where we're going'. I'm still uncomfortable at conferences. I think part of the vibe of the street is, if it's awkward for some reason you're never going to see the person again. Or, you know, you can get out of it really easily. If you have an awkward interaction at a conference it's like, oh no I'm going to run into that person at the next session, or at lunch and then I'm going to be reminded of this awkward interaction. Or worry about them judging me. I think one thing is that event planners can do something very easy and very smart, which is set out a kind of message written down with the tickets. Or, you know, on the back of your badge or something that says, here's some ground rules. Be nice to people, talk to people you don't know, try to make everyone feel welcome and included. Think of yourself as a host. So whatever the cultural translation of those would be, I find that for me if I'm at a conference and I feel uncomfortable, the best thing I can do is be welcoming to someone else. So if I see someone who is by themselves I say, 'Hi, I'm Kio', and I'm American so I just stick out my hand. I also try really hard when I have conversations with people I don't know, to ask them questions that give them an opportunity to say something real about themselves. So not the weather or transportation. I might ask them even a political question which in some parts of the world, including America, is like, wow, you don't know what you're going to get from that. Or instead of asking someone what their job is, I might say, 'what did you do today?' Or 'what are you going to do this weekend?' Or 'what are you obsessed with right now?' Or obsessed is maybe a too strong word, but you know, 'what are you really interested in?'


Don’t people think that a little bit too direct and personal if you ask such things?


Sometimes. I mean it depends on what country I'm in. I had a great conversation with some Germans who were at TED. And I said that I'd been told in Germany like, this is really not done, and you're from another country there's a little more room. And they said, 'oh yeah we talk to strangers but nobody else in Germany wants to do that'. It's very like, what are you trying to find out about me, let's talk about the traffic. So you have to give people some space.


Yes, but always talking about the weather is also… that's a small talk and then you ask, yeah, how's the weather, yeah great. And then everybody starts looking the other way around.


For me, I'd personally rather take a risk of asking someone a question that they find a little bit too personal. You can tell immediately from their face if they found it too personal and say, oh, you know, Change the subject, ask a different question. Ask, if you've just got to the conference, what do you think of the facility? Or what are you looking forward to? You know, you can back it up a little bit. But the idea is to leave an opening for someone to be more themselves and less general.


Okay. Kio if people want to read your book they can find it on Amazon? Or where can they buy it?


Yes, they can find it on Amazon and in a lot of bookstores. And it's been translated. Ultimately it will be translated into about fourteen languages, I think they're halfway through that. It's definitely in French and Dutch and German already.


Okay, great. We will all read your book, Kio. Thank you very much for your time.


Oh, you're welcome. Thanks for having me.


And you at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.