Thursday, July 03, 2008

Strange(r) Encounters: Conditions for Engagement

I've written before about techniques for talking to strangers, looking at how buttons, buses, and dogs and can all be tools for participatory design. Today, we return to that well-loved topic and look more broadly at the conditions of participation. So as you read, please consider this small assignment: think of a notable encounter you have had with a stranger.

I used that instruction recently to kick off a meeting at a museum planning a participatory education space. Around the conference table, there were stories about love, aggression, and wackiness, extraordinary objects and unusual situations. One guy talked about a mysterious cellphone caller and the twenty minute mutual "how do I know you?" conversation that followed. There was a woman who married her cab driver, another who formed a lasting friendship over the improper use of a magnet. There was a self-aggregating group who toured an art exhibition. There were two fights, both involving parking spaces. And my favorite, from a designer who was initiated into a secret world of graffiti-ed walls behind elevator doors in his art college in an entirely silent exchange.

I love these stories because they highlight unique moments in our lives. They stand out, at least in America, because of their infrequency. We spend most of our time studiously ignoring strangers, and it takes extraordinary situations to overcome those cultural mores and fears. This morning I was at a fourth of July parade swarming with people and didn't talk to a single stranger. There was no reason, no opportunity, no desire to go out of my comfort zone and do so.

What compels you to talk to strangers? So far, I've assembled the following list of conditions for non-compulsory participatory encounters with strangers:

  • Desperate Need for Information or Help -- used to find bathrooms, band-aids, and the time. These interactions are motivated by overwhelming personal desire which allows the requestor to overcome cultural barriers. Also, because the information or assistance sought is specific, the expectation is that there will be no further interaction beyond its provision. This makes the interaction feel "safe" for both parties. Interestingly, at the City Museum in St. Louis, these interactions (between visitors and staff) are intentionally promoted by a lack of wayfinding signage.
  • Unsure of the Rules -- related to the above, but with more chance for sustained interaction. These occur when you enter a situation and need help understanding how to act--how to order your food, get in line, signal the bus driver. This situation is less dire than the above, and the interaction comes not out of personal need but social interest in "doing things properly." This frequently happens in long and confusing queues at airports, where strangers will create and communicate shared stories about where they should stand, what's going on, and what their best chance is of getting on a flight. People often take on "helper" roles in these situations, rising to the occasion to assist others in the absence of professional information and to reprimand those with aberrant rule sets (i.e. people who cut in line).
  • Unusual Rules -- as in games and other situations in which a mutually respected third party authority creates a new set of rules that encourage strangers to interact. This occurs in speed dating, social gaming, and any time you are instructed to "turn to the person sitting next to you." In the background information about the alternate reality game SF0, the author calls the game "an interface for San Francisco," that is, a new rule set in which you are represented as a character who is and is not yourself. As they put it: "... most importantly, your character is able to do things that you may be unable or unwilling to do yourself. Your character doesn't recognize the artificial boundaries that prevent non-players from doing what they want to do." In other words, you are playing, and when playing, you are operating under new rules. The picture at the top of this post comes from a Flickr group called 100 Strangers, in which people take on the challenge of photographing strangers. That simple external task, supported by a collective and mediated by a device, empowers people to meet and learn each other's stories.
  • Intimate Observation of an Extraordinary Event -- when two strangers "share a moment" instigated by an outside spectacle. The spectacle can be as mundane as a kid picking his nose or as profound as a UFO sighting. The key is that it is shared by just a few people. If a thousand people see a kid pick his nose, it's comedy. If two people in a crowd happen to be looking at the same moment at the kid and then notice each other and smile, it's intimacy. These encounters are often non-verbal but can still be intensely personal. I once watched a baby stroller almost tip over at the same time as another man. The mother was oblivious, but the man and I had an intense moment of shared protective watchfulness. The curator at the meeting earlier this week who ended up touring an exhibition with strangers did so because of a shared moment with another person who was looking "behind the exhibit" at the same time as him. Sometimes these kinds of moments are manufactured, as in the elevator graffiti story, by one stranger who chooses to reveal a secret spectacle to another. These non-accidental moments are not always pleasant--flashers fall in this category.
  • Carrying Something Visible and Strange -- this is initiated by one person who turns him or herself into a kind of spectacle, whether by holding balloons, walking a dog, or wearing a wild hat. These visible identifiers become social objects that appeal differently to different people. You might enthusiastically approach a knitter while your friend would always walk up to whittlers. No matter the physical object, there are some people who will approach you to talk about it, even objects that connote non-social focus, like books or laptops. The object must, however, be distinctive enough to entice observers of the carrier/wearer to overcome social barriers and approach. In The Game, a very strange book about hitting on women, experts suggest that men wear flamboyant, ridiculous clothes to nightclubs as conversation starters. This can go overboard, however, as demonstrated by the image at the top. Unless we're at Disneyland (and for many people, even there), furry costumes do not inspire participatory encounters.
  • Doing Something Visible and Aberrant -- Highly related to the above, exemplified by the NYC group Improv Everywhere. These activities are not always grounds for participatory encounters. If you are doing something too weird or well-scripted, people look at you as a show or a threat, not an opportunity to engage. I had an extremely positive experience of this type once while doing pullups in the subway in DC. Someone started counting when I got close to ten, and then everyone started trying to see how many they could do and we became a big exercise encounter group for a few minutes. These encounters happen when the initial action or actor is perceived as welcoming, as having room for involvement and potentially improvement.
I think it's interesting that all of these conditions involve mediation by an abstract concept (rules, information), event, or object. There are lots of interactions with strangers that are unmediated, but these tend to be the ones we warn children about: encounters in which a stranger approaches you because of specific interest in YOU--your appearance, your residence, your wallet, your sexual preference. These interactions are more uncomfortable than the mediated ones because of their directness. The immediate reaction is, "Why is this person approaching me?" and there is no obvious, safe answer. With mediated interactions, the answer to the question is known, and thus the engagement feels safe.

It's also interesting that mediating conditions (at least in the real world) are not places. While the Web includes several places like chat rooms that functionally mediate interactions between strangers, there aren't many analogous places in the real world. Even bars, the cornerstone of the pickup scene, tend to primarily attract packs of friends who very occasionally venture ten steps from the pack to talk to a stranger. Creating a place for participation is not enough. To design spaces that encourage participation, you have to find ways to offer users mediating objects, rules, and events, and enough non-uniformity to allow intimate moments to slip through. And the hardest part? You have to do it in a way that feels accidental, surprising, and authentic. Otherwise you just become another guy in a bunny suit, people hurriedly passing by.

What conditions did I miss? What's your story about interacting with strangers?

11 comments, add yours!:

Paolo Amoroso said...

Nina: in October 2007 I spent a few days in Cocoa Beach and Miami Beach, and, in my limited experience, I didn't get the impression that Americans ignore visitors. I and my Italian friends were frequently greeted by unknown people who just smiled and said "hi!". Do you mean ignoring strangers beyond that basic level of interaction?

Anonymous said...

There is also the comraderie between stangers who are doing a similar activity - as a runner you always say 'Hi' to other runners out on the sreet, but not walkers or cyclists. (well we do here in New Zealand). Working in a Museum we are constantly trying to develop experiences where visitors can interact and learn alongside other 'strangers' who may not even speak the same language as them. It's great when it works!

Nina Simon said...

Hermione--great point! I'd call that one "tribal identification." I have it with people carrying frisbees, people with tattoos, people running early in the morning...

One interesting thing about that kind of interaction is that it's not enough to have the shared hobby or interest--you have to both be DOING it for it to be appropriate to talk. For example, you would probably greet a jogger differently (and get a different response) if you were in business attire instead of running shorts.

How can museums make it easy for people to express their tribal identities (and thus connect)?

Anonymous said...

In my role as a volunteer docent in a contemporary art museum, I roam the galleries during my shift and chat up folks about the art they're viewing (or, more frequently, speeding by...). I've noticed that people will initially shrink from the contact, until they're reassured by the official badge identifying me and my capacity. Some very satisfying and fun conversations result from these "stranger encounters." A good day at the museum is when I can get two disparate individuals or couples or families together, talking about a work.

Angelina said...

Hi Nina
Some of my fondest times in the States have occurred around strangers talking to each other. My two favourite occurred in New York. A well-dressed woman on the lower eas side was crossing the street when a man in a convertible called out and commented on how nice her hair looked and then drove away! Another was in starbarks restrooms where two girls were admiring themselves in the mirror. One asked me 'does my bottom look big?' Before I could say anything the other quipped, 'it looks just like her mammas!'
I have to say that as an Australian I find the ease with which Americans speak to strangers both startling and bemusing. Here in Australia I doubt whether I would have felt quite as amused after those two encounters - more likely I'd be looking for a police station! I think part of the reason Americans can be so open is that the culture seems to really encourage verbal communication. I've had more in-depth conversations with newly made acquaintances in the States than I often have here in Australia. We seem to have inherited the British 'stiff upper lip' in some respects. I suspect it is the reason that the social networking technologies have predominately been developed in the States - and I'm indebited to it!

Anonymous said...


THere's also the forced encounter - when you are stuck on a subway, tarmac, train etc. for hours and wind up conversing with strangers because you now share a mutual inconvenience - and misery loves company?. My favorite instance of this occurred on a very delayed Amtrak train from Washington to NYC. A tornado had downed a tree on the tracks and the train had to wait for over six hours until a crane could remove the tree and we could move forward. Although the train was packed, I was lucky to find a seat in the cafe car, sharing a table with a post-doc (whose early trimester pregnancy rendered her very hungry and very tired but still plugging away on the scientific article she was writing), a gregarious attorney who regaled us about his march-to a- different-drumbeat daughter who was turning his hair gray, and a publisher whose publishing house represented, among others, the estate of Eudora Welty. Hands down, the most interesting conversation I ever recall being part of. Made the 2:00AM arrival time almost worth it.

Nina Simon said...

Great stories! Keep them coming! Suzette, there's another post that talks about the role of live facilitators as stranger-enablers here that may interest you. I certainly miss the days of the "magic blue vest" I wore on the floor of a children's museum--it gave me access to talk to any kid without having the parent look at me suspiciously.

Elizabeth said...

HI Nina, the one situation I immediately thought of was parents and dog-owners, who, by virtue of caring for similar creatures, tend to talk to strangers easily while simultaneously observing these creatures in action (e.g. dog parks and playgrounds). I've met several of my new friends by hanging out at a local playground with my then toddler. We watch our kids play, interact, develop, etc. while comparing stories, ideas, suggestions, etc. I'm not a dog owner, but I heard that similar activities go on at dog runs and parks. Maybe this falls under the "tribal" heading. But my husband and I have often remarked that once you have a kid and you go out in public, all of the sudden you're practically forced to talk to strangers, especially if you have an adorable child -- which we all do! I also thought of my father who will gamely talk to any stranger if he can make a joke. Could be someone in an elevator, running the cash register, or waiting in line with us -- doesn't matter who or where, if he can make a joke, he will. As one might imagine, sometimes this goes well and sometimes it doesn't. But he's my dad and I don't try to change him :)

Marc said...

As we've discussed previously, there's also the shared foxhole effect with varying levels of stressful or distasteful situations like: dmv queues, airline delays, getting caught in a freak thunderstorm, hostage situations, etc. These are esp powerful for crossing tribal lines that wouldn't otherwise be crossed.

WriTerGuy said...

There is also, I think, "Intimate Observation of Ordinary Event." This is common with me. There's nothing extraordinary going on but someone makes the moment extraordinary, if you will, by commenting. The passe example of this would be to talk about the weather. At this level it's mostly just talk for the sake of talking, to show that talking would be okay if the other person is so inclined. But if the comment happens to be deeper - an insight about the weather, or a clever turn of phrase about it, to continue the example, it's a more involved gambit: you're trying to show that talking together would have value. It's a tribal identification, I suppose, but the tribe is "conversationalists" and it's a very large tribe. The trick is knowing what gang sign to flash, if you will, for the particular stranger(s) you're with.

Thinking about museum settings, I wonder what would occur if you had a big whiteboard up next to an exhibit, and I could go up and write something as a gambit to engage other people who were also viewing the exhibit right then. That might be a way to let people do their conversational gambits in a way that's less invasive of personal space.

Tad Suiter said...

I think there's some unquantifiable quality of being or seeming "up for it" that's hard to describe.

I talk to strangers all the time. More to the point, strangers initiate conversations with me on a regular basis. I certainly don't fall into the category of attention seeking-- to the contrary, I'm rather quiet and shy. I dress to blend in. I try to mind my own business.

But I've found that strangers seem to feel comfortable talking to me. I hardly ever enter a bar without ending up in conversations with people I don't know-- and it's not like I'm a startlingly attractive person or anything. I guess I just look like someone you *can* talk to.

I was talking with a friend of mine, trying to describe some unrelated event, and said to him, "it's like when you're sitting at McDonald's trying to eat your cheeseburger, and some little kid comes along and insists on talking to you." My friend just looked at me and said, "No, no I don't. That never happens to me."

I don't know-- there's some factor, it has to be the way some people react to initial nonverbal signs, behavioral cues, whatever, that lets those around them feel that they're up for a conversation.

And apparently I give that off even when I'm not.

Not really something you can institutionalize at a place like a museum, but key to knowing who to hire when you're looking for social facilitators. Some people, even when initiating contact, really don't invite conversation. They feel scripted, or forced, or cold. Others feel open to conversation, easy to talk to, genuinely interested. The latter are the people you need out there, being the "face" of your institution.

This is an elaborate ramble, apropos of very little-- sorry 'bout that.