Opinion

Don’t Be Shy: The Benefits of Talking to Strangers

More from our inbox:

  • Time for Diplomacy to End the Ukraine War
  • Murdered Journalist: ‘Truly a Hero’
  • Mikhail Gorbachev: A Peacemaker

Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “Your Social Life Is Not What It Should Be” (column, Aug. 26):

David Brooks’s column about people’s tendency toward “undersociality” is very important. Humans are inherently highly social, but also have fundamental social anxiety that hinders us from engaging in the social activity we need, crave and enjoy.

Every technology that enables us to keep to ourselves elevates the anxiety instinct over the social instinct. Cellphones and earbuds are very obvious culprits. But so was television in generations past, and even air-conditioning, which kept people inside, rather than chatting out on the front stoop.

The environments in which we live have the same effect. As a suburban kid, I was deeply influenced by camp in the summer, where I exchanged my own room in a large house for a crowded bunk and constant companionship. The lively interactions there led me to choose urban life as an adult.

Entering my building on a recent night, I had conversations with three different neighbors (and their kids, and their dogs) before I even got into the elevator to my apartment.

This is a radically different kind of human experience than one has in the suburbs or the wide-open areas that are usually colored red on our political maps. The severe political divisions between urban and nonurban areas strongly suggest that these different experiences of human interaction color our views in fundamental ways.

Ron Meyers
New York

To the Editor:

Here in Great Neck, N.Y., we have recently designated “conversation stations” at sidewalk seating around town, inviting passers-by to “please sit here if you’d welcome some friendly conversation.” According to the local press, it’s working just as David Brooks envisages: “Once you get used to filling your day with social exercise, it gets easier and easier, and more and more fun.”

Ronald Gross
Great Neck, N.Y.
The writer, director of Conversations New York, organized the conversation stations.

To the Editor:

Decades ago, in Paris, I sat down on an unoccupied park bench in the Tuileries Garden to read my newspaper. Shortly thereafter, a Parisian gentleman sat down on the other end of the bench and started a conversation.

My first reaction was to be annoyed, but I didn’t want to be totally rude so I tried to be polite in a perfunctory way without encouraging him too much. Two years later we were married, and we remained together for over 20 years until his death!

Irene Bernstein-Pechmèze
Queens

To the Editor:

I have personally learned so much from a daily practice of having at least one conversation with a stranger.

Over the past 30 years, for example, I have spoken with a blind man looking to feel the vibrations of an incoming subway car, a young woman on a grocery checkout line searching for a doctor to treat her aunt’s cancer, and an exhausted man on his way home after having worked a double shift at the weapons bureau at the police department. I even attended the graduation of a young Korean design student I befriended the summer before on a 16-hour flight to Seoul.

This life-changing activity has opened my mind and given me a deep appreciation for the diversity of my city and the world. It has also humbled me to have been made aware of the challenges so many others face. Indeed, I now look at a stranger as a new friend I haven’t met yet.

Jacquelyn Ottman
New York

To the Editor:

After my husband’s death from cancer four years ago, and stricken by loneliness, I made many attempts to meet other widows for coffee, or on a park bench, or to go for walks, and felt as if I was up against a stone wall.

Many would speak on the telephone, but meeting in person was burdensome for them. They had doctors’ appointments galore, which they kept, but social meetings seemed impossible. I found few women who would venture out, so I went alone when I had no one else.

I never stopped talking to strangers, if only to say “Good morning.” I am still lonely but surviving with the few friends I have.

Shirley Smithberg
New York

To the Editor:

Thank you for urging us to connect. I’ll add this suggestion for enhancing your life: Talk to cabdrivers! This is an entry-level position for many foreigners. Their reasons for coming to the U.S. are various and their stories are informative.

You might meet a military officer fleeing regime change or a business person from a suddenly collapsed economy. You can learn a lot through unfiltered accounts of the politics in Sudan, or the food of Ethiopia or the government of Venezuela. Most people seem eager to tell their stories.

I have always found the goodbye at the end of the ride to be warmer than the hello at the beginning.

Mary Barrow Nichols
Austin, Texas

To the Editor:

If we suffer from “undersociality” and the remedy is talking to strangers, we will have to update our parenting practices. Instead of teaching “stranger danger” from the earliest years, as parents we will need to both model and teach our children how to talk to strangers regularly, in appropriate circumstances.

It may or may not be true that the fate of America will be “determined by how we treat each other in the smallest acts of daily life,” as David Brooks asserts, but I believe that our mental health is.

If my neighbors, my fellow passengers on the bus and strangers in line at the store speak to me in a friendly way, I feel better and am likely to pass on those good feelings to others both at home and out and about.

Can we reweave the torn fabric of our society by chatting? I like to think so.

Eve Sullivan
Cambridge, Mass.
The writer is the founder of Parents Forum, a nonprofit that provides workshops on parenting.

To the Editor:

David Brooks expresses concern that, according to an online survey, “only 24 percent said they would talk to a stranger on a train.” I suspect that neither Mr. Brooks nor the aforementioned 24 percent have ever seen the 1951 Alfred Hitchcock film “Strangers on a Train” (or read the Patricia Highsmith novel upon which it is based).

If they had, they might better understand why people shouldn’t talk to strangers.

Jonathan Raff
Milwaukee

Time for Diplomacy to End the Ukraine War

A Ukrainian soldier standing atop an abandoned Russian tank near a village on the outskirts of Izium in eastern Ukraine on Sunday.Credit…Juan Barreto/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To the Editor:

Re “After Big Gains, Ukrainians Face Critical Choices” (front page, Sept. 13):

Ukraine’s impressive military breakthroughs against Russia should lead to diplomacy to end this destructive and dangerous war. Rather than trying to humiliate Moscow, Washington should press for a compromise that assures Ukraine’s territorial integrity, economic health and security.

A peaceful settlement would be a huge victory for the Ukrainian people and for Europe. It would also stand as a rebuke to the imperial designs of Vladimir Putin. But we should not push humiliation to the point of blowback, which would be a new spur to Putinism.

Instead, this crisis should remind us that the U.S.-Russian nuclear standoff is one of the world’s worst dangers. Progress toward nuclear disarmament cannot come too soon.

David Keppel
Bloomington, Ind.

Murdered Journalist: ‘Truly a Hero’

Jeff German had reported on all types of unsavory characters in Las Vegas over four decades before he was killed.Credit…K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal, via Associated Press

To the Editor:

Re “Reporter Whose Beat Was Vice in Las Vegas Meets a Violent End” (news article, Sept. 11), about a politician charged with murdering a reporter who had written an exposé about him:

Too often the current response when someone speaks truth to power is to violently attack the messenger. I remember Jeff German’s steadfast voice resonating through his columns as he followed my own defamation battle against four powerful politicians in the mid-1990s.

Three decades ago, calling out elected officials did not mean putting your life on the line. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Mr. German will be remembered as an intrepid reporter, and, I hope, an inspiration to the next generation of journalists. To me, he was truly a hero.

Lori Lipman Brown
Silver Spring, Md.
The writer is a former Nevada state senator.

Mikhail Gorbachev: A Peacemaker

Credit…Lisi Niesner/Reuters

To the Editor:

Re “How I Want the World to Remember Gorbachev,” by James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state (Opinion guest essay, Sept. 7):

Mikhail Gorbachev deserves primary credit for ending the Cold War, as any alert observer could detect from the currents running in international relations at the time.

It is important to remember what the reality was — how it looked, how it felt — to those engaged in relations with the Soviet Union when certain events occurred: the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall, the revolutionary changes that swept Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Ronald Reagan met the initial challenge from a dynamic new Soviet leader — recognizing early in his second term that Mr. Gorbachev was for real and that the U.S. government could “do business with him” — whereas the succeeding George H.W. Bush administration was slow to change its skeptical perspective as it pushed NATO’s boundaries eastward.

William E. Jackson Jr.
Davidson, N.C.
The writer is a former official in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the State Department.

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