Full PreFrontal

Ep. 168: Dr. Gillian Sandstrom - Strangers Aren't Scary

October 22, 2021 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 168
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 168: Dr. Gillian Sandstrom - Strangers Aren't Scary
Show Notes Transcript

Entering a space full of strangers can be as scary as entering a snake pit. The brain cannot help but think “oh-no” and is likely to look for an exit strategy. Even though humans are social creatures, approaching or engaging with strangers invokes unparalleled fear or social anxiety that keeps us from making connections, sharing, or seeking help. Is this hesitation to talk with strangers legit and true?

On this episode, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Essex and introvert who has grown to love talking to strangers in her Twitter series #Talking2Strangers, Dr. Gillian Sandstrom, discusses how blind we are to the positive effects of interacting with strangers, and how there’s a way to shift and pivot from such mindsets to grow to making more meaningful connections with the world around us.  

About Dr. Gillian Sandstrom
Dr. Gillian Sandstrom is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Essex. She studies the benefits of and barriers to having minimal social interactions, with people like strangers and weak ties (i.e., acquaintances). She is an introvert who has grown to love talking to strangers. She shares her stories of #Talking2Strangers on Twitter @GillianSocial, in the hopes of encouraging more people to reach out and connect.


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About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

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Sucheta Kamath: Welcome back to Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. I'm your host Sucheta Kamath. Thank you for joining us today, I believe by tying the findings from neuroscience, psychology, education, anthropology, and so on and so forth into our daily transformations, there's lot can be achieved, and particularly all that can feed our personal and collective growth. Research suggests that humans are social animals. And we are certainly wired to make connections and without connections, we feel lost. We feel lonely, and we feel uninspired. Today, I thought, just an appropriate story is there was a Colorado resident Michael Kent, who was a former neo nazi who encountered an African American parole officer. Her name was Tiffany Whittier, who not only connected with Michael openly and authentically, but she helped him see beyond the skin color, and helped him change his views about white supremacy. And that led to this really unlikely and unusual friendship between the two, eventually, which brought him to the tattoo parlor to get him to remove the Nazi swastika from his body. He also made a lot of changes. And all that was made possible the psychological change, a human change. And of course, a change that can really contribute to the society we create was made was made possible by two people who would have never found each other to be great companions. And they would have stayed strangers, unless something transformed in their own situation that brought them together. And that's why it is such a joy today to invite Dr. Gillian Sandstrom, who is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex, she studies the benefits of and barriers to having minimal social interactions with people like strangers, and something called weak ties, which we'll talk about which is casually we can say acquaintances, she is an introvert herself, you can tell that once you get to know her, she's a brilliant communicator, but introvert, and she has grown to love talking to strangers, she shares her stories of talking to strangers on Twitter, @GillianSocial, which I hope you all check out. And most important thing she's going to talk to us about is the process and the benefits that they outnumber the fear that you have one may harbor in her heart that strangers are something to be wary about. So welcome to the podcast. How are you today?

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: Thanks so much for having me. It's my favorite thing to talk about.

Sucheta Kamath: Yes, and you talk so well about it. So let's dive in. So if humans are a social animal, why do we fear socializing through interactions with strangers? And aren't all acquaintances and known people strangers? At some time, some point?

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: Right. And so I think that's why this research question has intrigued me so much. You know, I think I think there may be a couple of exceptions. But yeah, but it basically everybody starts off as a stranger. And yet, we're so afraid to talk to people and we benefit so much when we do so it's this puzzling conundrum that just never ceases to keep me interested. Yeah, I've been I've been interested specifically in what what you asked like, Why are people so worried about it? What do people think might happen if they were to talk to somebody? And

Sucheta Kamath: so I guess yeah, what is associated with talking? Yeah,

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: I think the problem from researchers perspective or just, you know, from any of us, trying to sort of fix this and encourage people to talk to each other, it's just that there are so many things that people worry about, you know, from worrying about the other person's reaction, you know, are they going to reject me? Are they going to do they, are they going to be interested in talking to me, but also, you know, we're worried that we're not going to enjoy it that we might get bored. You know, what's the point in talking to someone surely they have nothing interesting to say but also maybe I don't have anything interesting to say and they're not gonna like me and we don't want to not be liked. That's that doesn't feel good. And I think people are just worried about not knowing what to say, the sort of mechanics of it. And I think, you know, that's probably especially true right now after COVID, when we've all sort of withdrawn, we might feel like we've lost our skills, if we feel like we ever had them, which maybe many people don't. But I believe in my research finds, you know that, that it's easier than you think. And you know how to do this. So, people are more worried than they need to be is the sort of main takeaway of the research.

Sucheta Kamath: Can we talk a little bit about this concept of judgment? I think I had Ethan Kross on my podcast, who talks about mental chatter. And it's, it's so interesting that we are so much in our head. And so the biggest person's voice that is really reverberating in our head is our own. So I don't even know when we have time to clear our voice to let other people's voices get in. But I can see one of the things your research also points out is, there's so much drama that's happening about anticipation of how things can go wrong, they don't even need to go wrong. So although all the creative ways we are thinking how will be rejected. So what what is this concept of rejection or acceptance? Can we start there? And also, if you can talk about people who we know, also reject, and accept things we say, but we have a different relationship to that. And why's that relationship to rejection of an idea or not accepting what we are saying is feels emotionally different.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: There's a lot of questions, and really interesting ones. To start by your comment about Ethan's work on the sort of voice that's always talking in the head, we definitely find the same thing that that people sort of get caught up in that negative voice. So it's not just that there's a voice in the head, but it's just a really negative voice. We're so unkind to ourselves. And we think after talking to a stranger, oh, they couldn't possibly have found me interesting or liked me. And we, you know, we compare ourselves to maybe our best self, or we think about the time we told the story better, or why did I say that? Or why didn't I say that? And so yeah, we do get caught up in this in this voice. And like I said, this negative voice? Yeah, I don't know, we just beat ourselves up. But yeah, the question about how it's different when it's people we know, is really interesting. And so I've been teaching some how to talk to strangers workshops, that came from sort of thinking about how maybe one of the reasons people don't do this is because they just simply don't know how. And recently, when I taught one of the workshops, someone asked a really good question. And they said, the kind of interactions with strangers that I've been looking at are kind of a special kind, because I've been looking at the kind of interactions that are sort of meant to just last for a moment, and then you walk away. And I think there's something kind of extra special about those. And maybe they suit an introvert particularly well, because I can just have a brief conversation, I know, I'm going to enjoy the moment, but then I can walk away, and I know I'll never see the person again. And that reduces some of the fears about what's going to happen, right? So but this this person is who attended the workshop pointed out that those kind of interactions with strangers are very different than talking to a new colleague at work, or something where you're going to continue to have a relationship or you might continue to see this person. And that that can be even people might worry even more about rejection, because if it's someone you walk away from, oh, well, if they don't want to talk, it's not a big deal. You know, it's forgotten almost immediately. But if it's someone that you feel like maybe you want to develop a relationship with or just, you know, have a friendly working relationship with them, rejection is a lot more consequential, isn't it?

Sucheta Kamath: Yes. And I think like, What's so funny about what you just said, is how seriously we take rejection, almost, it becomes an identity, like I don't, I am that person who is universally accepted, at all times, never, ever rejected, and that's just such a false reality, right? If I'm in my head, and everybody else is too.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: And the funny thing, that one of the things that I think is kind of funny about talking to strangers and rejection in that, in terms of talking to strangers, is there's almost no consequence to it. You know, for this for The first kind of stranger I'm talking about, right? The one where you just walk away, it doesn't really matter if someone doesn't want to talk to you, there's no cost to it, except for that negative feeling that we kind of blow out of proportion. And so I think we can sort of, maybe get used to that, like, I think we just have to kind of put ourselves out there and keep trying and sort of learn that actually, it's not that bad when it happens, which is rare in the first place. So from some of the data that I've collected, it seems like people are only rejected about less than 10% of the time. So it happens really infrequently. And, you know, if you think about it, it every interaction is about two people, right? So yes, maybe you have a role to play in this rejection, you know, we could see it as something's wrong with me, they, they don't like me, they're afraid of me or whatever. But, you know, we forget that there's a second person involved. And, you know, there's many reasons that they might not want to talk to you, right, they might be really stressed out about something or preoccupied, or just really afraid of talking to people, right, they might be so socially anxious that they are afraid to talk to you. So we forget that that person has their own issues and reasons for why they might not want to talk. But I was on the tube. I guess it's a while ago now because of COVID. But I, you know, I try. I started doing this research, because I started talking to strangers and really enjoying it. And I wanted to understand it better. But now because I do this research, I talk to strangers even more, because I feel like I have to walk the walk. If this is the research, I you know, I get to do my own sort of personal research. And so I was on the tube. And I sort of tried to convince myself to talk about all the time. But you know, a lot of the time I'll try to talk to somebody. And so I remember this one time, not that long ago, where I turned to the person on my rights and tried to start a conversation. And she was polite, but it was clear that she didn't really want to talk I think she you know, plugged in here earphones, or if she pulled out her book or something. And I thought, all right, and so I turned to the left, and I had a really nice chat with the person sitting on the other side. So I think we can get to the point where we can get used to the fact that it's not a big deal. If someone doesn't want to talk so rejection, I think we sort of blow it out of proportion, and it feels like a bigger deal than it is and that in this situation, I mean, I'm not saying rejection is isn't bad. But in this particular kind of talking to strangers situation, I just don't see the huge it's, it's just not as negative as we make it out to be.

Sucheta Kamath: And I think in your work, you're right, that simply by exposing ourselves to strangers, we can move from awkward, you know, stage where we feel awkward to a stage where we have a curious and discovery mode, which kind of informs our perspective taking and help us build different viewpoints. So let's talk about how do you induce people to how do you study this in a lab? How do we, how do you measure people's encounters with strangers and also, if you may, kind of sorry, again, I as you can see, a habit is emerging. I'm asking you too many questions at the same time. But maybe first if you can just say strangers the concept that you will never meet that person again is I come from India and one of the things I had ample opportunity to encounter strangers was people I ride bus with train with people if you're standing at the bus stop, you know, people you encounter if you go to the vegetable market, you know, you have to deal with vendors you you're not talking to, you're not picking up your own groceries and going through, you know, individual checkout. I feel like a lot of I mean, at least in America, where I have spent most of my time a lot of encounters with strangers are eliminated because we have removed the need to need strangers, a gas station, we want to pump I will not go to self serve gas station. I don't want to deal with anybody. So so maybe we can talk a little bit about how, how did you think about these different ties weak versus strong ties? And then how do you study this in a lab?

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: So I'm gonna start in one place, and then if I don't answer all your questions, just ask me again. Because I have a terrible memory. But I think one of the first studies I ran during my PhD, I ran it at Starbucks, and this sort of came from the idea that like, Okay, back up a second. I developed a relationship with a lady who worked at a hotdog stand and it made a huge difference to me feeling comfortable on campus, when I stopped I did my master's degree. And so I really wanted to study that kind of interaction, which is kind of a baby step up from the stranger because it was not somebody that ever really talked to that I knew well, but we had mutual recognition. So I consider that to be not strangers anymore. And I thought one kind of relationship like that is the relationship that people have with their favorite barista at the coffee shop. And so that's what I really wanted to study was sort of can that, you know, how does having that person in our life make a difference to us. But I had a hard time figuring out how to study that. And so that's sort of how I ended up starting to look at conversations with strangers. So I ran a study at Starbucks, where I approached people on the sidewalk outside of Starbucks, and I said, I will give you a gift card. And you could spend, you have to spend it right now. And the only catch is that you have to follow some instructions when you go in. And so some people, we asked them to be as efficient as possible to have their money ready and avoid chatting with the cashier. And we said, you know, this is good, because the person working there just wants to get on with their day, and you're helping them out by just being really efficient. And then other people, we said, when you go in and you buy your coffee, just try to turn it into a real social interaction. So smile, make eye contact, and have a little chat. And lots of people said, Oh, yeah, I do that all the time. And we said, okay, do it even more. And what we found is that when people came out of the store, if they'd had that little tiny conversation, they were in a better mood, and they felt more connected to other people. Hmm. And the research paper, we in the title, we said something about efficiency. And it seems like this sort of, you know, that we focus more and more on efficiency, and we could probably avoid talking, I don't know if you can avoid talking to people at Starbucks now. But you can avoid, you know, at the fast food restaurant or the grocery store, like you're saying, at the gas station, you don't have to talk to people anymore. And I think we kind of were tricking ourselves into the fact that this is more efficient. And so we're willing to make that trade off that we're willing to, you know, not have these little social interactions, because we want the added efficiency. Whereas if you think about it, at least in this Starbucks situation, doesn't take any longer to get your coffee, if you have a chat, you know, it really, it really doesn't, you have to wait for that coffee to be made. And so you know, it's this false trade off, I think, you know, that, that we're kind of throwing away an opportunity for happiness, by focusing on being more efficient instead. And I think the risk is that practice really does make perfect when it comes to talking to people. And so I think we're taking away all these optimal interactions to practice. And that's not great. And I mean, technology is doing that in lots of ways, right? You know, people will do this, instead of, you know, with tap on their phones, instead of actually talking face to face. And that could also lead us to, you know, we might not develop those skills, or we just might not feel as confident in them, because we're not using them as often. So I know, I haven't answered all your questions, because I've forgotten, you know.

Sucheta Kamath: I think this No, no, I know, I'll come back. And I'm, I apologize, I think this is fantastic. I think the first point that hits home for me in in that study, is the impact on mood, and the people have completely left that out of equation. And and you're right, I think I thank you for tying the concept of efficiency, we want to be productive, we want to be in spaces where most work will be so we can be done. And then we are looking at all the other things of our lives as auxilary unnecessary, not needed, can we remove it, it's like, you know, I want to put the trash in my bin and drag it down my, to the street, but never want to talk to the trash man, you know? Because that's gonna be like that the problem is my time away.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: Sure. But then the problem is, of course, you're never gonna you're not going to enjoy it. Right? And I think we haven't exactly we have an endless to do list. It literally is never gonna. And so I think, you know, if we focus too much on trying to get things done, instead of enjoying the moments as they come along, then we're kind of missing out on something. And I think most people, even people who are like I never talked to strangers, I would bet most people can think of a time where they've inadvertently talked to someone or someone has talked to them, and they've been polite and talked back and they felt better afterwards. You know, like I think I think we all recognize that we've had a situation like that where we've had a little tiny interaction and we're like, oh, actually, I walked away feeling pretty good. And so I just want to tell people look that happened. happens almost all the time. And you can actually do it on purpose to feel good and make the other person feel good, which is a really lovely thing as well that it that it benefits both peoples.

Sucheta Kamath: And I do have a story actually, that proves your research is absolutely on the money is, you know, a couple of weeks ago, I was flying to New York, one of my first or second trips after the pandemic, and we had massive thunderstorm and lightning in Atlanta, and then we got stranded and I had unfortunate circumstances of the middle seat. And, and so the plane have boarded. And somebody on the left side had not entered the plane yet. And but I know the plane was packed. And so what was supposed to be just, you know, board the plane, everybody got their, you know, devices and I had downloaded a movie, I was ready to like rock and roll and not having to deal with anything, this is my time that I'd get to be uninterrupted, you know. And then once we realized that, Oh, this is serious. And so I had some earbuds and then some announcement was made. So I missed it. So I had to go to my loose tie the weak tie and ask the guy next to me and said, I'm so sorry, what did they say? And so he gave me the scope. And then that simple act of asking became a relationship gateway.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom:  Now you're in a conversation. 

Sucheta Kamath: Yes, yes. And then I was, uh, by the time like, two hours, we were on the plane, I'm borrowing his, you know, his charger, he's giving me his pretzels. And I'm looking through my bag to see if I can reciprocate, we are talking about where we are going. And then this went on for four hours. And then we not our conversation, but we being on the plane, finally, they got us off, and they said, the new team could the crew could not, they couldn't find the pilot, a new pilot, because the shift had ended complicated stories short, I felt obliged to tell the man who I had never seen probably never gonna meet, to let him know that I was leaving. And I was going to board the plane tomorrow. I've been. And now I found myself that I have a relationship. Somehow there is one plane, one person on the at that airport that I had to inform that, hey, I'm not going to be boarding this plane to New York again. But I'm going to take the plane tomorrow. 

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: Four hours felt like it went by a lot quicker because you had someone to talk to. And you probably didn't get stuck up in your head as much about Oh, this is so annoying. I can't believe this is happening. Because you're talking to someone instead. 

Sucheta Kamath: 100%? How do you know? Yes. And I think the most beautiful thing, as you mentioned, is it gave me a perspective, that there are so many people with me, they're in the same predicament. So nothing special about my predicament. It is not extraordinary or bad. It's just what it is. So is this what you're also seeing and tell us more about your other layers of research that you have done?

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: To answer the first part, I do think that, that you've tapped into something that that I think is really important here. So like I said earlier, I talk to strangers quite a quite a bit, almost daily. You know, I go for a walk in the park and I talked to people with the dogs or I talked to people, you know, who were coming out of their garden allotments and whatever. But I think, you know, a lot of times a single conversation with a stranger is nothing special, its average, it's fine, it's not negative, I think they're rarely actually negative. But a lot of times they're just kind of neutral or average. Every once in a while you have a really interesting or stimulating or fun or you know, whatever conversation. But I think that one of the benefits, there are benefits from having a single interaction. But I think there's also this sort of benefit of accumulating a lot of interactions with strangers. And I think that that's that's what I've value from it, you know, I don't necessarily remember the conversations I have which is partly why I put them on Twitter to sort of remind me of all these nice little moments that I've had because they are forgotten quite quickly. But they add up to me feeling like I could talk to pretty much anybody and people are generally kind of interesting and nice and my world just feels a little safer and friendlier. And I think that's the biggest benefit to talking to strangers.

Sucheta Kamath: Lovely. So now that you you have shared with us the initial your you know why you got into the field and your initial set up, in what ways you have further furthered this investigation? And what have been the questions that you have tried to get answers to.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: Right. So I guess he started by just trying to, like I mentioned, I had this relationship with the lady at the hotdog stand. And so the first question I had was, is it just me? Or is this a thing? You know, do people in general have these kind of relationships that matter? And is it possible there's sort of this kind of relationship that maybe we're undervaluing overlooking a little bit, and I and I kind of hope that COVID has made people realize that they have this whole network of people that don't feel important, but add up to something really important add up to this feeling of belonging in our community and at work? And, you know, in our Yeah. And as we say, in our city, that's the same as community, whatever. So that's where I started. And then because I found, actually, yes, people do benefit from from doing this, they feel better, they feel more connected. That sort of leads to the question that you asked really early on, which is why do we not do it? So then I spent quite a bit of time trying to understand, you know, exactly what are people worried about, with the thinking that if I, if I figure out sort of common things that most people worry about, maybe I can help fix them, like figure out ways to sort of break down the barriers and encourage people to talk so that they can enjoy these benefits. But I've kind of, I'm kind of feeling at the moment that that it's a bit of a whack a mole situation, you know, that game where, the, you know, the gopher head...

Sucheta Kamath: I'm familiar with that.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: You hit one, and then another one pops up in its place. So it kind of feels like people worry about so many different things that even if you're able to sort of reduce one of those fears, they'll just, you know, think about another one. And so the most recent study that I did, kind of stemmed from that and just and just the fact that, you know, so going back to one of your earlier questions about how do I study this, so I have run some lab studies, I also do a lot of field studies. But in the lab, I'll pair people up with a stranger. And sometimes that's a confederate, someone that I've provided for them to talk to you. And sometimes it is just some other research participant and I pair people up together. And I've also run studies, where I just asked people to go to find someone and go up and talk to them sort of on the spot. But I had done some studies where no every study that I'd run, so dozens of them, I'd asked people to report before talking to a stranger, how they were feeling, you know what they thought would happen. And then they would actually have a conversation and report back on how the conversation actually went. And every single time, you know, people would say it was much more enjoyable than they expected. It's not like they're expecting it to be horrible, but it's just they're, they're under estimating how well it's going to go. And they would have to kind of admit that all those things they worried about didn't actually happen. So we're talking massive effect sizes here, like huge differences between the predictions and the reality. But why people didn't seem to be learning from this. So if you ask them, what's going to happen, if you talk to another stranger, they're like, I don't know. And so I think it's just really hard for us to generalize, because we see every person is unique. So just because I had a nice conversation with Sucheta. Why would I think I would have a nice conversation with Evie? I don't know her, she's totally different. Anything could happen. And so again, that negative voice comes in and we think, I don't know, and it's kind of silly, right? Because, you know, yeah, we're caught, we're a common denominator and both of those things. So we and we have some influence over how the conversation goes. And also, like you said, at the beginning, I mean, every person we know, started as a stranger. So clearly, we've had quite a lot of experience in our lifetime of talking to strangers, but I think we don't do it very often. And so I think, you know, we just, we don't notice the patterns. And so I thought, Okay, how, how do I deal with this? How can I fix this? And so the most recent study that I've done was a study where I thought I need people to have multiple conversations with strangers in a short period of time, so that they can see that these conversations just generally go well every single time. And that seemed like a really hard thing to do because people don't want to talk to strangers. So how am I going to convince people to talk to lots of strangers when they don't want to talk to even one and so what I did with some wonderful collaborators is we created a scavenger hunt game using an app. And we had different missions for people to carry out. And they involve things like find someone who's wearing a hat, or find someone who's drinking a coffee. And so people in the experimental condition had to find someone who matched the description and actually talked to them. And we had to control condition where people found the person and observed them, but didn't actually talk to them. And so we asked people to talk to at least one new person every day for five days. And what we found is that by the end of the week, people were just feeling a lot more confidence, they were less worried about being rejected. So like, more accurate about how often they would be rejected, because like I said, people are rarely rejected. And they felt more able to carry on a conversation. So they were, you know, more accurate about how well they'd be able to do that as well. So it seems like practice does make perfect, but like I said, we kind of have to, a lot of people probably need to push themselves to have that practice so that they can learn that actually, these kind of conversations generally go well don't write off that one nice conversation as an exception. It is the rule.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, first of all, I love your experimental design, I think just you had to be so clever to you know, think differently about compensating for these nuance based difficulties to make it a natural encounter yet, facilitate multiple happening. So very clever.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: People enjoyed it, that it was a game, you know, it was sort of a challenge, threat. And it was kind of fun. And I think that's why people kind of stuck with it.

Sucheta Kamath: Yes, and I'll tell you one of the best advice I got from a very wise person that I have interacted with and met. And he said, when you are in a large, when you're at a large gathering, talk to the person who nobody is talking to. And that has really helped me because a lot of times we go into step social situations, like a wedding, or it's a reception or it's a conference and we know just a few people. But then we also want to be so secure, that we want to just be with them. So that there's like a sense of relief. But also I think some people are extroverts and they get better attention. They know how to engage other people and introverts may be absolutely fascinating people like yourself, and so your self proclaimed introvert. And, and I think that gem I discovered because I appear extrovert, even though I love to be by myself, which is hard for people to believe because I can talk to strangers, I can talk to people, I can make people talk, just a professional practice. You know, the question I know, I tend to ask you too many questions. So I'm going to be very careful. One thing that stuck out, for me is this interesting thing. As you explained in the, in the design of your study and your findings, a story comes to mind of Mr. Rogers. So one of his producers tells this story. It's a really endearing story. But he had hired the producer had hired a crew and they were going into New York City studio and they had to walk from one place to another. And they were all the production team was on the clock and he wanted to be very proficient and, and they went through an alley and then there was a homeless man sitting on the floor there and hey, he said, shouted out out at this group of people who are walking by Hey, do you have? Do you have $1 and nobody turned around, except Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Rogers, then not only opened his wallet, found a five $5 bill, but went to that homeless man and sat next to him, gave the $5 bill now here, the producer is getting a heart ache. It's like getting a little heart attack. Come on, like Mr. Rogers means 20 minutes gone, for sure. But Mr. Rogers, actually, and he wasn't trying to impress he wasn't trying to do anything. He just could not pass a you know, in a non personal way this this bill and move on. He had to stop by talk, just kind of visit. And I just found so much inspiration in that story that I think visiting people, you know, seeing them for who they are, and maybe revealing a little bit of yourself is what your your invitation is to all of us is the strangers are in a way that one of the best friends that you haven't discovered yet, you know, so that's such a joy and So with that in mind, I think there are three components you often describe, which is that there's an affective component. There's a social component, and then there is a competence component. So can we talk a little bit about the competence component of communication? So we need, you know, I'm a speech and language pathologist and have been for 25 years. And my field of expertise is teaching and empowering people with something called pragmatics, this social cognition, this capacity to communicate, connect and make meaningful language and nonverbal communication with people. And I find that sometimes people with ADHD or Asperger's or language based learning disability actually have deficits in this competence of using knowledge base, or how language and communication works. Have you explored that? Or have you given a thought as to how that fit? That piece fits? When somebody is less competent than they have reasons to not feel confident? You know what I mean?

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: Yeah, well, I'm going to push pause on that for one second, to go back to your story about talking to talking at a party. Because as an introvert, like that is the number one situation that I hate, I hate being in a room full of people when it's loud. And I find that very overwhelming. And, I don't know, I don't feel like someone wise gave me that advice. But I somehow figured out the same thing that you're talking about that it makes me feel better to find someone one person to talk to. And I so I almost, I almost feel like talk finding a person to talk to is is a coping mechanism for me now. I think like, if I talk to someone on the tube, the tube is also like really noisy, and smelly and loud. And, and if I turn to someone, and have a conversation with them, that helps me block out all the other stuff. And so I do exactly what you're describing, I'll look around the room and try to find someone who's not talking, and go up and talk to them and have a one on one conversation because that's what's comfortable for me. And yeah, certainly, you know, one of the things that I'll sometimes do to sort of work up my nerve to do it because even after having talked to 1000s of strangers, I still you know, get a little anxious sometime even though I know I'm going to be fine even though I know I'm going to enjoy it, you know, there's still that little bit of fear. And so in that particular situation, I will try to tell myself that I'm doing it for that person, they have no one to talk to, they're going to appreciate you talking to them, it's an act of kindness, it's a you know, a pro social thing for me to go up and talk to that person. And that's sometimes enough love that feel up to doing it. So I think that's one thing that I've it's great I'm trying to emphasize when I talk to people is talking to strangers benefits you because it helps put you in a good mood and makes you feel connected to other people. But it also benefits the person you talk to and so it's it's a win win for everyone. But sorry, back to the question, which I've actually remembered for once. I haven't looked at any special populations that might have more difficulty communicating but I guess I have been starting to think about sort of what the baby steps might be to work up to talking to strangers so I know that it might be just impossibly scary for some people and so I think there are some steps that you can take to sort of work up to it. So for myself, I think the first step just involves making eye contact with people I realized that I would look at people and then it felt too scary and I would look at the at the sidewalk afterwards and so I really had to train myself to sort of maintain eye contact with people and that led people to talk to me because it was so unusual to have someone look at them they thought you know oh she's safe to talk to you because she looked me in the eye and so then it was a passive you know, I will talk to strangers who talked to me and you know, eventually I was the one initiating so I think eye contact is the first thing I think and there's research showing that simply making eye contact with someone makes the other person feel less disconnected. I use the wow that's that was how it was described in the study less disconnected. So I would say that rather than more connected but even though it sounds awkward.

Sucheta Kamath: Painful, yeah.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: I think I think eye contact is the first step and then you can just smile at people and I always not at the same time. So that's my pro tip. Because I think if you if you just smile, people don't know that you're smiling at them. They might just think you're just a smiley person and you always walk with smiling. So I'll smile and nod my head at someone so that they know that that smile is directed at them. And I will do this I do a little thing. When I when I go on the tube, you know, you go down this escalator down into the, to the depths. And I'll often

Sucheta Kamath: Listeners, I just want to kind of interject and say, Gillian is in Essex, so England. So if you're wondering her accent, but she's Canadian, and the tube, of course refers to we have people from 110 countries, by the way, sorry, 120 countries listening to us. So yes, I'm sure many of you may not know what tube is. Sorry, go ahead.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: Yeah, so as I go down the escalator down to the tube for the subway, I'll often play a little game with myself where I try to get people who are going the opposite direction to smile at me. So I just try to make eye contact and smile at someone, it's a good little practice, because you literally can't, like there's no strings, because you're going opposite directions. You know, it's, it's literally a few seconds. And you know, there's nothing to worry about. And it's really hard. And it just, it reminds me how often we're distracted. We're not we're not looking at people were, you know, on our phones, or we're looking, you know, it almost seems like people are afraid to look at each other these days. And so I consider it a little small triumph every time I can get someone to smile back at me. So I think smiling and nodding is sort of maybe the next step up. And then you could just say hi with no actual conversation. And then and then I think there's, there's certain people that are easier to talk to. So if someone wanted to sort of work their way up to, you know, approaching a random person, you can practice in situations that are especially safe. And so I think that's one of the things about a place like Starbucks, you know, the people who work there are trained to talk to you if you want to talk. So there's no they're never going to reject you. You know, it's going to be a very short period of time and you can walk away. I mean, I come across advice at different points about talking to people in an elevator and are in the lift, for the same reasons that you know that there's a very short period of time and then you're gonna walk away and so it doesn't it's not as scary because everything is sort of defined you know what tips back. So you can seek out those kinds of situations that to get some practice in a safe way before you go rogue and talk to random people on the tube.

Sucheta Kamath: I love this. I think you just kind of described the little tiny hacks of you know, conquering your own fears and setting the stage for stepping forward to even have the courage to say something, can I share something when I grew up in India we have a custom I mean, very unlike how it happens here people knock on your door and come to visit without  announcing. And that used to be a very common thing we lived in a what in in here we would describe it as a subdivision and we will rarely be locked doors they may be the door may be even flung open all the time. But anyways, in my family the rule was children would go and greet whoever is at the door. And 50% chance that some there's a stranger there and 50% it would be an acquaintance somebody in the neighborhood or actually friends. And it used to be very annoying. Like I remember distinctly getting annoyed with my parents for this rule. Because you had to pretend to be just smile. Oh, hello, how are you and I just want to kind of put a dagger in your heart but and so I had this internal duality as a adolescent feeling extremely uncomfortable. And I felt that my parents were pawning off this job that it was there as you know, anyways, that proved to be such a helpful life lesson actually. That not only you say hello, you ask them why they're there, you invite them if that's appropriate and and offer them water or tea or coffee. So that would be the job and then you go as if go to the chambers and invite the kings and queens which is not how it was but my parents required all three siblings, all three of us to do that. That really helped because when I came to us I remember my first month I got into an elevator with a big grin on my face. No reason are we This was before cell phones. And the man in the elevator says to me, What are you laughing about? I said nothing. Anyways, so I am often I have inculcated or habitated that stand and that is proven to be very effective. So my question is one disadvantage I have experienced because of this is people think I'm very friendly. So I get approached all the time for directions and when I was younger, in quotes, you know, less popular group would definitely would love to hang out with me because I was presenting myself and genuinely may be also meaning to be inclusive. But that was annoying because then I was taken away from popular people, not the elite of the elite. Do you have any thoughts about the social capital, this capacity to withhold your approachability that sometimes people think that somehow makes them special?

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: I don't quite know how to answer that question. But what I will say is, you know, I talk a lot about the benefits that I've talked about so far from talking to strangers are the sort of emotional, you know, psychological benefits. But often, you get actual tangible benefits as well. So I wouldn't want to recommend this to anybody. But I have had a lift have had someone has offered me a ride. My husband was with me. So it didn't seem that scary. It was the kindest thing because it saved us, you know, an hour of time when it was really late, and we were really tired. I have recently I walked past a garden a lot meant, and this lady said, Would you like some zucchini, some courgette? I said, Sure. shovels, I, you know, learned really interesting things from other people. My husband got an interview at a company because I almost I started a conversation with a stranger by almost sitting on his coffee. So my point is, I think, I think one of the downsides of networking is that it feels very instrumental. And it feels, to many of us kind of icky, like we're doing it for a purpose, because we want to get something from people. And I, I don't want to advocate talking to strangers, for the reason that you think you'll get things from people. But I think when you don't try to get things from people, it still happens, because people appreciate that feeling of connection. And that what that's what drives people to want to do things for you. And so I think that there are all kinds of tangible benefits and social capital benefits that come from, from just socializing rather than, you know, trying to get something from people.

Sucheta Kamath: And, you know, I think as we come to the end of this discussion, this is such a powerful message, because, you know, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children are now encouraging parents to kind of stay away from using the term stranger, stranger danger, which was popularized in 80s, almost, when kidnapping and a national database was created, and television started advertising, not advertising with programming that would talk about missing children. But what they are finding the the data actually doesn't show at all. And this training, which is, you know, be stern don't stop, don't engage. There, they are even noticing that that kind of advice has no merit. And and I feel that the culture also has imbibed that feeling. If children are not safe, then adults, maybe we are in the same predicament. But the general attitude towards strangers is danger. So as we end our conversation, two thoughts, maybe two comments. One is, what would you like us, the listeners to think about when they think about talking to children about building a set of skills or relationships with strangers? And I know that's not your wheelhouse of research, but I'm sure there's so much applicability, because I think these are parents who may not be demonstrating how they talk to strangers. So then you can have rules that are separate for children if you're not doing it. So that was my first question.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: Yeah, yeah, I feel like this, the change in in that message, the fact that people don't want to, that we don't want to pump up the whole Stranger Danger thing anymore feels important. And I think, you know, this, thinking about strangers as being dangerous, could almost cause its own set of problems. Because if something bad did happen, if we're too scared to ask for help, then, you know, that's a negative thing as well. Right? And so one thing I found, you know, as I've built up the skills in talking to strangers, which has been a sort of gradual thing, it translates in other ways, right? Like, I think by feeling more comfortable in that kind of situation. I also feel more confident to put up my hand and ask a question in a room full of people or I feel more calm. trouble when I have to make a phone call and book an appointment or something, I hated that, as a kid know, when my mom would make me call up whoever and I, I always felt like afterwards she said, Did you say this? Did you say that? And I'm like, Well, why didn't she tell me I was supposed to do those things. I just felt so anxious on the phone talking to someone that absolutely hated it. I mean, we don't do that so often these days, but it's made those kinds of situations more comfortable, it's made me more comfortable to ask for help from other people. So I think, you know, by by telling children, you can't talk to strangers that were cutting them off from all these opportunities to practice. So, you know, like there's, there's a kernel of like, there's something truthful about Stranger Danger, right? Like, I'm not trying to advocate that people shouldn't talk to someone when they're walking down a dark alley. But I guess the point is, you know, kids should feel safe to talk to strangers in many situations. And I think that will help them develop skills that will be useful in all sorts of different domains.

Sucheta Kamath: I think that's a really important and valuable message there Gillian that parents are cutting off these opportunities that build skills, such a powerful way to think about the relationship with the world. So the last question about this big topic of strangers is social media. And you know, I was reading some work by an anthropologist from 80s and he was giving a longitudinal studies about a not studies but how tribes and how we lived in tribes. Were a human wouldn't. I think maybe what, turn of the century like 19th or 20th century up to then we met 150 people over a lifespan strangers 150 only and now we are getting comments from 150 strangers a week right? 

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: I was reading like Pride and Prejudice and the mother gets really worked up and she's Oh have you know, we dine with 13 families? I thought that someone's entire social work or family.

Sucheta Kamath: Oh, I love terrible. I exactly remember that. Yes. I mean, it's like really when you're trying to make an impact or reputation management was all about the number of people you would encounter for lifetime and now I feel that's like a leaky dike you know you have you have like you said Twitter or Instagram and Facebook and so many people are getting to know your thoughts and they may be quietly consuming them or observing them or you're also subjected to comments by people who will never ever take the time to look into your eyes and see the you know, pain that one might feel if they said something nasty. So what are your thoughts about this extremism in stranger encounters?

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: I mean, I don't want to be the person who says social media is terrible and causing all these problems because there's so many really nice things about social networks especially for people who feel like who don't have people around them who share their experiences you can find people you know you can connect with so many more people who might sort of get you and be able to provide the support that you need so you know, there's lots of really good things about it but of course you know, I think we just need to be aware of the the pluses and minuses and so you know, there's research about how happy people tend to compare themselves less often to others and we know that social media is like the worst for comparing yourself right that's what we do most of the time is people self present they present this perfect life and then we look at everyone and we think oh my life is no good in comparison. So I think we have to be aware of you know, what the issues are and yeah, you know, people posting things in the hopes of getting lots of likes and maybe deleting something if it didn't get enough likes you know, I'm just gonna say it straight up that's not a way to live. Yeah, you're not living to make other people happy you know you should be living in a way that is meaningful to you and makes you happy.

Sucheta Kamath: That's perfect. I think that's such a pragmatic and and genuinely I think effective message. So as we come to the end of this interview, you've been fantastic. Can you share some books that are top of the mind for you that you found a useful?

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: Sure. So the first one is a new book called The Power of Strangers. Oh gosh, I don't even know what it's called. The Power of Strangers. Okay, I got it right, by someone named Joe Kohane. And I'm a little biased in this recommendation, because I talked to Joe a couple times in chapter two is all about my research. Yeah. But it is a really great book, we talked a lot about why we should talk to strangers, like what are some of the benefits that we get from it, including sort of societal level benefits, which I sort of touched upon a little bit, and also a little bit in how to do it. And he shares all sorts of stories about different people that he encountered who were, we're talking to various strangers, he did a cross country train ride, where you talk to us people. And he's just really funny so that my advice to anybody who picks up this book is don't skip the footnotes. The footnotes are the funniest bits.

Sucheta Kamath: Oh, that's right. Oh, that's lovely. Yes.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: And then I'm quite a reader, which is probably maybe not surprising for an introvert. But my favorite novel that I've read recently, I was kind of late to this book, but it's called the Gentleman in Moscow, if you read it, yes. I love that book so much. And even just thinking about the ending, makes me cry. So I'm not going to do that. But I think so please don't share your book is that we have an aristocrat, a member of nobility, who is confined to a hotel for the rest of his life, and he's told if he leaves the hotel, he will be shot. And so I think the thing that really appealed to me is, in one way, his world is very, like physically quite small, right? He's the one building and yet he really manages to lead a life that's rich and meaning and relationships, you know, the key, he treats every single person with courtesy and respect. And he's just developed these kind of deep, maybe surprising friendships that he would never have had if if, you know, these circumstances hadn't intervened. And, and I just think it's a really, you know, there's lots of things like about the book, but I just love that he managed to be this super rich life, even given this huge constraint on his freedom. So that really appealed to me.

Sucheta Kamath: Love those recommendations. And definitely it's so funny. Michael Lewis is one of my favorite favorite authors, you know, who has written Moneyball and many other books and, and so that's his favorite book. So I heard him last year during the pandemic, some podcast interview, and he had recommended that book so that's how I got it.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: Perfect pandemic book, isn't it that's being locked in.

Sucheta Kamath: Locked in and how anyways, I think it's just a very powerful book. Well, Gillian, what a fantastic conversation and thank you for opening up your brilliant mind. So and, and sharing your wisdom. And folks who, as you're listening, thank you again for joining us here. As you can see, these are very important conversations informative, and powerful, that can help us to propel ourselves to become better people. And maybe in your company listeners, somebody would approach you as a stranger and you will offer them the comfort that they deserve to reduce their concerns and worries, by being very open to those conversations. So definitely keep staying in touch. If you love what you're listening, share with your friends, family and colleagues, like us on Full PreFrontal on our social media channel. And leave us a review and if you need to reach out to me, you can always do so by emailing me at sucheta@exqinfiniteknowhow.com and thank you, Gillian for being here and hope to stay in touch.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom: Thank you so much for having me today and letting me talk about my favorite thing.

Sucheta Kamath: It's been great.