My stomach flutters with nervous apprehension as I await the arrival of 18 strangers. I am reading on my boat, but only half of my mind focuses on Backcountry Bear Basics. The other half is worrying about the folks about to get off the big yellow bus and onto my little yellow raft. Where are they from? What are they like? Will they have fun on the river? Will they like me? Will we have anything in common?
I’m always a little nervous at the put-in. Meeting strangers is sometimes nerve-wracking, and connecting with them can be intimidating. I know that sometimes guests also feel this nervousness – who will I spend the next six days with? Will our families get along? Will we have fun with these strangers?
The hydraulic hiss of the school bus door pulls me away from food storage techniques in bear country. I store my book, take a calming breath, and greet 18 new faces as they spill onto the banks of the Main Salmon River. My nervousness persists until I shove off the beach. With oars in my hands, I ask CJ where he is from, if he’s been rafting, and what he likes to do with his free time. He plays competitive table tennis.
Research tells us that the quality of our social relationships is one of the strongest indicators of our overall happiness and well-being. Most of the research, though, examines close ties – partners, friends, and family members. As CJ told me about his table tennis training regime (it includes Olympic weight lifting to hone his explosive power!) and the development of his forehand loop, my curiosity ran wild. I asked a hundred follow-up questions. My admiration mingled with disbelief and wonder. It left me feeling, honestly, quite invigorated. And I mused, what about social connections with strangers? Do they also have positive impacts on our health and happiness?
Most people dread talking to strangers. Many avoid it at all costs. Also, many like me, were raised on “Stranger Danger” messaging. Several recent studies found that talking to strangers can actually increase our sense of belonging and improve our mood. Participants in the studies predicted that talking to strangers would be displeasurable. But, the interactions actually left participants feeling more optimistic, empathetic, and connected.
Despite my perpetual and predictable pre-trip jitters, I know this to be true. Trip after trip confirms the power of connecting with strangers. CJ shared my boat that first day with a couple from Wisconsin. Six people heralded from Texas, others from North Carolina, and some from Holland.
I found out that Chris and Zack are avid readers of sci-fi. I actually had to stop rowing to write down the name of a new series I needed to read. We talked about our favorite dystopian reads of 2023. We discussed the ways they challenged us to think differently or more deeply about our own world.
I found out Will is a trivia master. His team competes every Thursday. The skills he brought to Rachael and I’s daily crossword routine were unparalleled. He was the ultimate closer and I had immense admiration for his knowledge and humility.
I found out that Travis has a slew of chestnut trees. He had us rolling as he told us about the extent he’d gone to protect the trees from destructive gophers.
I found out Tami, Rommy, and Lisa were all teachers. Suddenly I was less alone.
I forgot I was ever nervous to meet these people. Joe Keohone, author of The Power of Strangers wrote, “Talking to strangers – under the right conditions – is good for us, good for our neighborhoods, our towns and cities, our nations, and our world. Talking to strangers can teach you things, deepen you, make you a better citizen, a better thinker, and a better person.” I am so easily made better by conversing with the guests on trips.
Just before dinner on night five, apropos of seemingly nothing, the contingent from Texas emerged for dinner decked out in cheetah print. The chorus of hoots and hollers led Rachael to extract her costume dry bag. Soon Karen was sporting a metallic baseball cap and a camo jersey. Travis wore a blue wig, and Jack a red cape with orange pantyhose. Megan wiggled into half of a traffic cone costume. Grady sported a purple kimono, Phil a mullet wig, and Will a sequin tie.
This moment was pure distilled joy. The descent into joyful chaos was peppered with shrieks, giggles, and snorts. I genuinely laughed so hard that I got a cramp. But, too, I felt gratitude. Every person on our trip was wearing something festive from the shiest guest to the solo traveler. Every single person engaged in this collective costume silliness when just days ago, no one knew each other.
This moment would not have existed without our willingness to ask questions, to offer compliments, or to listen and learn from each other. We broke down barriers by having curiosity. I started the trip nervous but I ended it grounded. I felt connected and hopeful. I was less alone. And a group of strangers made me feel that way.
Harvard University professor Danielle Allen writes, “Real knowledge of what’s outside one’s garden cures fear, but only by talking to strangers can we come by such knowledge.”