Peace is more than a wish with some strangers

Three people walk down a road
Living in Colombia, one of my favourite things was feeling like I had the superpower to make people talk to me as I walked down the street. 

I would say hi to every person I passed, old or young, and they would immediately respond. In reality, it was less of a personal superpower and more of a way of life, carefully upheld by everyone in the community. I would be scolded later if I hadn’t properly greeted everyone in my path.  

Coming back to Canada was hard. Nobody talked to each other. I felt awkward and unsure. I had worked so hard to cultivate a new set of Colombian social skills that I no longer had any idea how to talk to Canadians. Going to a networking event or engaging in small talk with the end goal of “making friends” was terrifying.  

Then the pandemic happened and all opportunities for connection disappeared.

Something shifted for me when pandemic restrictions lifted. Every chance I had to talk to someone, without fear of being infected, suddenly seemed so precious that concerns about not knowing how to "talk Canadian" were less important than not losing that relational moment.  

My blossoming love for talking to strangers in Canada was cemented when I started chatting with some folks at a local pharmacy. We were all awaiting the results of our COVID-19 tests which would tell us whether we could get on planes the next day. Suddenly, we had formed an impromptu cheering section in the corner of the store. Together, we celebrated each person’s negative test results as the doorway to a great adventure.  

Since then, I’ve become more intentional. I don’t pry, but I do try to open space for conversation with strangers whenever I can. I’m still astonished by how much the connection means to me and to the person I am connecting with, and how things flow. I’ve had conversations about climate anxiety, fashion, relationships and everything in between, on trains, elevators and street corners.  

The truth is we all have the same superpower. We can all be peacebuilders by striking up conversations with strangers.

According to research (yes, imagine my delight in discovering there was research on talking to strangers!), talking to strangers makes us happier, less lonely and more engaged with the world in ways that reduce prejudice and stereotypes. It allows us to see others as less of a threat, viewing those unfamiliar people as simply human – just like us. When we feel connected to those around us, even if it's with strangers we only encounter once, we are less likely to respond to uncertainty or difference with fear and suspicion, but rather with increased curiosity and empathy. These responses are the foundations of peacebuilding.  

For Christians, this echoes the biblical messages about community and the imperative to see and treat others as bearers of God's image. Engaging with others changes them. It also changes us in a beautiful way.  

We often think we need big projects or specials skills to reduce polarization and transform conflicts. What if that same objective, however, can be achieved anywhere, by anybody, by simply developing the muscles and confidence to engage in low-stakes conversations with people we see every day but never talk to? Baristas, grocery store clerks, people walking their dogs and folks standing in the same line at the bank. The possibilities are endless.  

Of course, we need to consider power dynamics and safety factors. Especially when we are from a dominant group, we may unintentionally create fear or mistrust in the people we are trying to engage. We want to ensure conditions are in place for healthy and safe conversation.  

Ultimately, study after study shows that, across age, gender and ethnicity, in around 90% of these interactions with strangers, both parties engaged eagerly and left feeling happier, with a greater sense of connection.

Introvert or extrovert, we are all social beings who crave connection with others. We are designed for community; only when we are together can we see the fullness of God’s image and view ourselves as part of a greater whole.

Just as every Colombian knows, walking down the street, greeting your neighbours and being greeted in return is a true superpower – it is an extraordinary human ability that has the power to change lives and build peace.


Action and Reflection:  

  1. Sit down with a group of friends or family members and ask them about their experiences talking to strangers. Together, brainstorm some straightforward opening and invitational questions to start a conversation with someone you don’t know.  
  2. Talk to one new person at your church, school or community group this month. Reflect on what you learned about yourself through doing this. What surprised you? What was challenging?  
  3. Find an accountability buddy and, once a month, update each other on what you have learned or experienced through engaging with strangers.