Opinion: How conversation with strangers might open new doors

Prospective students and their parents participate in a campus tour at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, June 29, 2023.

Prospective students and their parents participate in a campus tour at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, June 29, 2023. Alex Driehaus/ Valley News / Report For America


Published: 05-21-2024 6:00 AM

Narain Batra is the author of “The First Freedoms and America’s Culture of Innovation.” Under the auspices of Osher at Dartmouth, he will deliver on May 24 a public lecture, Superintelligence: Why We Need It. He is a contributing columnist for The Statesman (India) and other publications.

In the fall, Dartmouth College will bring to its campus a student body of 1,209 young strangers, men, women, genderqueer/nonbinary/trans, including first-generation college-goers, foreigners, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Caucasians, Latinos, and even the undocumented or asylees. In the next four years, myriad encounters among strangers with diverse backgrounds would transform them into communities of innovators, creators, scholars, and some of them, members of the ruling classes.

Whatever is happening at Dartmouth College, a heroic effort at blending meritocracy with diversity, open spaces for freedom, and tolerance for chaos, is a mirror image of what is happening on campuses across the country — young people pushing the boundaries of freedom and opening new doors in a culture of open dialogue and conversation. College is worth going to not only because of what happens in the classroom; but rather what happens outside of it, in cafes and dining halls, in Greek Life and on the campus green, chance encounters, casual conversations, network building, and shared idealism to change the world.

Just consider: Larry Page and the Russian-born Sergey Brin were PhD students in computer science at Stanford in the mid-1990s. Their shared interest in computer science and the vast amount of information on the internet led them to collaborate on a research project that eventually became Google.

Of course, chance encounters can happen anywhere. Imagine for a moment, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, two strangers with a shared passion for technology, meeting for the first time. This serendipitous encounter in 1971 eventually led to the creation of Apple, a company that has forever changed the way we interact with the world. Doesn’t it exemplify the transformative power of meeting strangers?

In today’s fast-paced business environment, the ability to innovate, adapt, and connect is more crucial than ever. Meeting strangers is not just a social exercise; it’s a business imperative. Every stranger represents a door to new opportunities; be it a fresh perspective, a potential partnership, or a groundbreaking idea that could change your life or revolutionize your industry.

Consider the concept of ‘weak ties’ introduced by sociologist Mark Granovetter. His research found that weak ties, or casual acquaintances, are more likely to introduce us to new information and opportunities than our close friends. This is because they move in different circles, have access to different networks, and can bridge the gap between our familiar world and the unknown. Furthermore, engaging with strangers may challenge our preconceived notions and push us out of our comfort zones, leading to breakthrough ideas and solutions. College campuses provide students with the power and networking wealth of ‘weak ties.’

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin, in a study for the Harvard Business Review, concluded that companies with more diverse connections were more innovative, as measured by the number of patents they produced. They said that “new research provides compelling evidence that diversity unlocks innovation and drives market growth— a finding that should intensify efforts to ensure that executive ranks both embody and embrace the power of differences.”

But how should we translate this understanding, “the power of differences,” into action? We must cultivate a mindset of openness, curiosity, and tolerance for dissonance. We must approach every interaction with a stranger as an opportunity to learn and grow. Attending networking events, participating in forums, and not shying away from striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know is important. Leveraging technology to connect with strangers offers unprecedented opportunities to meet and engage with people from around the globe.

Seeking out individuals from different backgrounds, and cultures is important. The more diverse one’s network, the richer the pool of ideas and opportunities. Meeting strangers is not just beneficial; it’s essential for business success in the 21st century. It opens the door to new ideas, opportunities, and perspectives that can propel one’s business forward.

So, embracing the unknown, stepping out of one’s comfort zone, and building those connections is crucial for young people on university campuses because eventually they will be working for some organization or business enterprise. After all, the next stranger one meets could be the key to the next big breakthrough.

Engaging in conversations with strangers has been shown to have numerous positive effects on one’s well-being. Research indicates that talking to strangers can lead to increased happiness, a strengthened sense of belonging, increased mental sharpness, and a decreased sense of loneliness and isolation. It can also improve trust and contribute to a person’s social health and overall well-being, especially college students who feel lonely and mentally depressed.

Interacting with strangers can help to challenge and overcome social anxieties and the fear of rejection, leading to greater confidence in conversational abilities. It can also change perceptions about other people, fostering a sense of community and humanizing those we might otherwise view as mere obstacles in our daily lives.

Moreover, these interactions can have practical benefits, such as expanding one’s network to include new friends, romantic partners, or business contacts. They can also serve as a complement to close relationships, not as a replacement, enhancing one’s social circle and experiences. It is in this sense that the college experience, however turbulent, is indispensable.