There’s a new community-building tactic underway in Oklahoma City – conversations with strangers. It’s remarkably cheap, easily implementable and has anecdotal support for its effectiveness. San Franciscans could benefit from giving this simple cultural shift a try; rather than avoiding conversation, we could all do a better job of seeking it out.
Alec and Trevin were seated at the bar stools to my right when I entered Saints, a bar in OKC. It didn’t take long for them to find a potential conversation topic. After I ordered my stout, they both volunteered where I could even better beer selection. If I were in SF, the conversation would have likely ended there. Instead, our conversation continued and winded like Lombard Street through topic after topic: whether Kevin Durant is welcomed in OKC (he is not); if anyone in Oklahoma knows Elizabeth Warren is from there (they don’t); and the preferred nickname for Oklahoma City (it’s OKC or The City).
In our City, several factors make community-building conversations less likely to occur. First, pressures on time. People have outsourced spontaneity to their calendar apps; they schedule everything from calls home to mom to hangouts on the weekends. It follows that even if a stranger struck up a conversation with you it’s likely your phone would soon interrupt and send you to a new appointment.
Second, physical limits on space. Whereas Saints had some unfilled tables and spread out stools that made it possible to hear the person next to you and comfortably sit by them, some SF bars rival BART for the amount of space available. These confined spaces make confrontation easier than conversation. Understandably, few people want to start a chat with the person already in their personal space.
Third, barriers to establishing trust. For many valid reasons, the diversity of demographics in San Francisco can make it harder to identify commonalities to even begin small talk. One could argue that the homogeneity of Oklahoma – generally people with the same religion, roots, and lived realities – makes it easier to turn a stranger into a friend. However, this diversity excuse fails to adequately consider that San Franciscans are more than capable of creatively identifying shared attributes and concerns. Nearly everyone in the City is ready to complain about something; BART, parking, rent, etc.
A cultural change to conversing with, rather than circumventing, strangers can make our community safer and more economically vibrant. By creating a community ethos of conversation, fewer pernicious points of view can fester and ferment. Strangers that become friends also become allies in the many battles associated with living in San Francisco, such as finding a safe, stable place to live and avoiding areas prone to violence and theft. Perhaps it’s time for an updated definition of stranger danger. Perhaps we should fear a failure to realize our potential to turn strangers into friends. These friends become another set of eyes and ears to look out for the needs of the community – from catching a porch pirate to reporting an assault on the sidewalk.
Conversation also opens the door for the exchange of ideas. This informal activity has substantial economic ramifications. The most innovative and entrepreneurial communities are those with the greatest likelihood of generating novel ideas. It’s no secret that creativity comes from the sort of new encounters and experiences tied to meeting new friends, even if in familiar places.
Talking with strangers can’t solve every problem, but it can begin to bridge divides at a time where our City seems to be fragmenting. Imagine a San Francisco where old-time residents didn’t guard their tips for enjoying the City but instead actively sought out newcomers and visitors, much like Alec and Triven did in OKC. Imagine a San Francisco where phones weren’t used as tiny walls to stop any sort of chance encounter from occurring on BART or Muni. Imagine a San Francisco where residents made time not just for friends but strangers looking for a community of their own.
Some San Franciscans are already doing this work. These are the people who pause and ask you about your day (and wait to hear your response). These are the ambassadors of a better City and a more cohesive community. They shun the idea of “no new friends” and embrace “no San Franciscan left unwelcomed.”
Let’s all aspire to be more like those who error on the side of assuming that every stranger is just a friend waiting for a hello.
Kevin Frazier is a law school student at UC Berkeley and a Richmond District resident.