wonderlab confiding in strangers allison lenz ahra cho
1. A person with whom one shares a secret or private matter, trusting them not to repeat it.
1. Tell someone about a secret or private matter while trusting them not to repeat it to others. 2. Trust (someone) enough to tell them of such a secret or private matter. Synonyms: trust - entrust - intrust - rely - consign - commit
“There’s something magical about confiding your secrets and innermost thoughts to strangers and friends versus the structures of family. Sometimes it’s also better for your soul. People who care about you, who are permanent fixtures in your life may willfully misunderstand something, or try to tell you what to do (because they care, etc etc), because they’re looking out for you, they know you. But strangers are people you’ll never see again if you’re lucky and talking to them means nothing except a listening ear. They will not confide in you, nor tell you their deepest darkest secrets in return, they will not caution or advise you because they have no stake in your life, emotional or otherwise. They will see you for what you are in that moment: a human being in a multitude of others, maybe with an interesting story to tell and an interesting way to tell it, but that’s all.”
– Maryam Piracha, Beautiful Minds blog
What is the nature of and what are the conditions for confiding in a stranger?
QUESTIONS What barriers prevent people from striking up a conversation with strangers? How does space shape the conversation with a stranger for better or for worse? What qualities or characteristics do people look for in a confidant? How do social norms or cultural traditions influence how, when, and where conversations with strangers unfold? Why do some people confide in strangers at all as opposed to people with which they have existing relationships? What role does trust play in confiding in a stranger?
TYPES OF STRANGERS hairstylist waiter/waitress taxicab driver bartender salesperson
offer a service
person in an elevator person walking their dog person sitting next to you on a bus
person in a coffee shop internet acquaintance person at the gym
in a public space
PROCESS – Defining the focus
1. Hair salon visits
2. “Self-expression” topic exploration
3. Defining a research question
observing spacial interactions
mapping out associations and nuances within topic
exploring the idea of verbalizing nonverbal self-expression
researching facets of “self-expression”
exploring social norms and the idea of confiding in someone
interviewing stylists and receptionists probing for information about the clientconsumer relationship gathering stories, experiences, and conversation topics
contemplating verbal and non-verbal, conscious and sub-conscious
how does space influence human-tohuman interactions? What is the nature of and what are the
visually documenting and synthesizing findings
conditions for confiding in a stranger?
PROCESS â€“ Conducting research
4. T-shirt probe
5. Card sorting probe
6. Online Submission Form probe
quick and dirty, got our feet wet
gathered a breadth of information about confiding in different types of strangers
collected content anonymously
failed to function as we had intended it to drew out key observations about reason for failure
compared to confiding stories and experiences from Card Sorting study
PROCESS â€“ Drawing out and presenting insights
7. Creating spacial guidelines How can the construction of a space be more conducive to confiding in strangers? How can space foster face-to-face conversations with clearly defined roles that more effectively lead to the level of confiding?
8. Modeling the space and the interactions/exchanges within Compelling presentation of findings through a hands-on experience in a space that models the insights drawn from the research
insights and methods to be used to inform further design solutions and recommendations
METHODS – “Thoughts on your sleeve” T-shirt HOW: Using letter templates and fabric paint, write your desired message on either the front or back of an attention-grabbing, brightly-colored t-shirt. Wear the shirt in public while maintaining an open, approachable body language. Iterations: –– “Tell me something you wouldn’t tell your best friend” –– “TELL ME a secret about yourself” WHEN: Use this method at the beginning of the research process after deciding on a focused research question. This method gets you out in the field interacting with strangers right away.
RESULTS: This method is useful for drawing attention to yourself as a researcher. It allows people to approach you of their own accord, through which you then collect information from people interested in your project. From this method you should get a sense for how people react to you as a stranger, despite declaring your purpose as a confidant openly. WHY: This method attracts public attention to a particular message or instruction written on the t-shirt. It allows you to state your purpose for interacting with people.
METHODS – “Everyday I’m shufflin’” Card Sorting HOW: Write words on cards and ask users to arrange the cards on a spectrum from “most likely to...” to “least likely to...” Ask probing questions to understand their reasoning behind the order they chose. Cards can be laid out on a flat surface or held in hands. Iterations: For the topic of “confiding in strangers,” each card represents a different type of person that the user assumes they did not know, e.g. “person sitting next to you on a bus” or “waitress/waiter”. –– Exercise 1: Arrange the cards from people you would be “most likely to talk to (converse with)” to people you would “least likely talk to (converse with)” –– Exercise 2: Arrange the cards from people you would be “most likely to confide in” to people you would be “least likely confide in” –– Exercise 3: Arrange the cards on a positioning diagram, focusing on hypothetical conversations with each stranger, on a spectrum from ‘short’ to ‘long’ and from ‘comfortable’ to ‘uncomfortable’
Follow-up questions (in order): –– If any of these people were to approach you, how would you feel? –– If you had to initiate the conversation, who would you be excited to talk to and who would you be wary of? –– Has a stranger ever confided in you. If so, what was that situation like? What did they talk about? How did you respond? –– Have you ever confided in a stranger? If so, what compelled you to do that? What did you talk about? How did they respond? –– When you confide in someone, what qualities or characteristics do you look for in that person? –– What role do you think space plays in shaping the conversations you have with strangers?
WHEN: Use this method after conducting internet searches on your research topic. Now that you have an idea for what studies have already show, it’s time to do your own research on the interaction between two strangers. Note: Be sure to target a varied demographic, e.g. parents, professionals, students, men, women, 18 to senior citizens, and people from various socioeconomic classes. RESULTS: This method allows the user to imagine the conversations they would have with these strangers and think critically about who they would converse with or confide in and why/why not. WHY: This method is useful for understanding social norms followed when conversing with strangers.
METHODS – “Behind enemy lines” Contextual Probe HOW: Interview a person who typically is on the receiving end of a confession in their natural environment. Iterations: waitress/waiter → café, restaurant bartender → bar hairstylist → hair salon WHEN: Use this method, following a previous in-depth design probe, to explore the other side of confiding: listening. RESULTS: This method offers an alternative perspective to confiding in strangers: listening as a profession.
WHY: To fully place the nature of and conditions for confiding into context, it is important to understand the perspective of someone who bears witness to a plethora of confessions daily as part of their job. That the interview takes place in their work environments, he/she responds to questions from the perspective of his/her daily working professional role.
METHODS – “e-confessions” Online Submission Form HOW: Use a Google form to allow users to submit confessions anonymously Prompt: “If I had the chance to confide in a stranger, I would tell them...” WHEN: This method is useful in conjunction with the Card Sorting method. While the card sorting methods aims to understand the structure of and social norms attached to conversations with strangers, this online submission form reveals the content of the “confession” if the user had the opportunity to confide in a stranger. RESULTS: This method provides rich, personal material to begin understanding the kinds of things people share with strangers if given the chance.
WHY: The anonymity of internet submissions encourages users to be honest in the content they share with a stranger, and, ironically, us as researchers.
INSIGHTS GENERAL PEOPLE CONTEXT/SPACE INITIATING STRUCTURE OF CONFIDING CONTENT ENCOURAGING QUALITIES BARRIERS
INSIGHTS // GENERAL From the research, a few common themes, patterns, and opinions emerged. In speaking to participants during the card sorting exercise, most people usually had no issue with other people initiating the conversation. They felt far more hesitant to be the ones to initiate a conversation with a stranger and were therefore more likely to interact with strangers who initiate the interaction first. Every participant stressed the importance of having a reason to talk to someone, whether that ranged from a normal expected conversation topic with a waiter to the simple, personal desire to learn more about the stranger on the bus. Overall, a service, an item, or an exchange acts as a vehicle to engage two strangers. While many people are comfortable carrying out conversations with certain types of strangers, most participants claimed they have never confided in a stranger, but should the opportunity present itself, they would not be adverse to it.
INSIGHTS // PEOPLE An unfamiliar person is usually considered to be a stranger, at least until an interaction occurs. Once the initial barrier of silence is broken, that stranger becomes less unfamiliar as the conversation goes on. Instead of defining them as â€œstrangersâ€?, you start defining them by what they are currently doing. Some strangers you encounter are service professionals, like waiters or sales people. Other times strangers are everyday people in transit, like people walking their dogs or riding the bus. Though sometimes you will find strangers, who are idle, doing very little, and so can be more receptive to conversation conducive to confiding. The issue lies in bridging that initial gap. Overall, the participants in the card sorting exercise were far more comfortable speaking to service professionals they did not know than a random stranger, because, in those conversations, the roles are very clearly defined, e.g. waiter and customer. There is an expectation for the interaction that both parties are aware of going into the conversation and so it is a comfortable, socially acceptable interaction that involves an exchange of some kind. With an idle, everyday stranger, those roles are not clearly defined and so can be very uncomfortable depending on the context.
INSIGHTS // CONTEXT/SPACE People use public spaces with certain expectations and intentions. For example, at the gym, the majority of the people present are not there to socialize; they are solely there to attend to their physical fitness. Most participants said they would feel uncomfortable initiating conversation in a gym and would also feel irritated if someone approached them. Conversely, on a bus or in a coffee shop, a personâ€™s intentions for that space differ. These other contexts are spaces where people can be idle. It is not socially acceptable to hang out at a gym, but in a coffee shop or bus itâ€™s fine. The ability to be idle in a space allows a busy crowded public space to ultimately seem private. Confiding happens in public spaces that bear the illusion of privacy or intimacy. For example, a small, bustling, populated area where conversations cannot be overheard seem more private than a large, quiet, vacant space where every sound makes a difference. Often times, the uncomfortable feelings that arise from conversations in certain spaces are due to the extremely close physical proximity to stranger, e.g. an elevator. Socially, people are accustomed to maintaining larger distances between themselves and a stranger. Such pre-mature, almost forced physical nearness can inhibit any interaction.
INSIGHTS // INITIATING While many people shy away from initiating conversations with random, everyday strangers, there are those that do enjoy starting them. One participant describes conversations with strangers as “pleasantly enriching”. She takes great satisfaction in her ability to make someone’s day better, and thereby her own, merely through conversation. Though in her case, she does not initiate conversation to confide her own issues; she initiates to signal her openness and receptiveness to a stranger, who may wish confide. In almost every case, confiding does not happen at the start of any conversation. It takes time to work up to that level of mutual understanding, even trust. Commonly, people are more likely to confide in someone who has already confided in them. That foundation, even if recently formed, strengthens the temporary bond between strangers formed through conversation, affirms the other person’s humanity, and completes the informational exchange. That people initiate conversations with strangers that lead to confiding—even when it would be easy to ignore them—points to a collective human need to experience some sort of connectedness to others.
INSIGHTS // STRUCTURE OF CONFIDING One of the biggest questions is “what happens between initiating the conversation and the stage of confiding in the stranger?”. What needs to occurs so that a person can comfortably confide in a stranger? First, confiding at this point needs to be separated from “ranting” or “venting”. Confiding cannot happen without a willing, receptive audience, in other words, a good listener. From initiating to confiding, your perception of the stranger shifts from unfamiliar being to someone you can relate to on a basic human level. Perhaps psychologically a stranger becomes less of a stranger to you in conversation because you start to relate that stranger to people you know with similar characteristics, thus they automatically seem more familiar to you. In another sense, the conversation starts with a lack of clearly defined expectations and contextual roles, which gradually begin to take shape in the form of an unspoken mutual understanding as the conversation progresses. Suddenly what’s on your mind is not “what does this stranger want from me?” but “how can I relate to their situation?”.
Personal barriers determine the relationship between the giver (the confider) and the receiver (the confidant). In order to give, you must trust the other person enough to lower your own walls. On the other end, in order to receive, you must be mentally receptive to the confession and so must lower your personal boundaries usually held high when in the presence of strangers. The mutual understanding of each otherâ€™s roles in the shared act of conversation allows confessions to easily flow between two people. Strangers especially can be the perfect listeners in that they are not connected to your social circles, which provides the assurance that what you say will not come back to you. Interesting to note is that people generally do not confide frequently for fear of changing peopleâ€™s impressions of them. Fortunately, with strangers, the lack of a prior relationship promotes candid, unburdened expression. Because a stranger is likely a person you will never see again, their judgment is less relevant or significant to you than that of your friends or family. While confiding in a stranger can be a cathartic process, being confided in can also be greatly enjoyable. Some people consider it a form of flattery and even honor that a stranger has seen something in them that makes them want to bear their souls. Again, the idea of confiding in strangers speaks to the idea that all humans feel a need to be connected to others through face-to-face interactions.
INSIGHTS // CONTENT Usually conversations with strangers revolve around mundane topics that everyone can relate to, i.e. small talk, but they can also gradually take on more personal content. Personal conversations tend to walk the fine line between confiding and ranting or venting. As a general observation, when confiding, people rarely take the opportunity to communicate positive life experiences or feelings. Perhaps speaking openly about positive topics, like success in business or impending marriages, can be seen as bragging, which is generally not socially very well received in the U.S. On one hand, good news is a topic for conversation and celebration with family and friends. On the other hand, negative, troubling topics bring people down or incur judgment, both of which people tend to actively avoid in their social circles. Therefore confiding in strangers usually takes on the function of â€œgetting it off your chestâ€?, purging your thoughts of negative content.
INSIGHTS // ENCOURAGING QUALITIES –– an extended amount of time –– a shared space conducive to longer conversations that seems/ feels private –– a shared experience/interest/purpose: something in common contextually –– body language: some degree of looking idle/open –– a degree of anonymity –– physical appearance and gender: women are generally seen as more approachable, sympathetic, and easier to confide in
INSIGHTS // BARRIERS technology –– headphones, laptop, cell phone (calling or texting) body language –– facial expression (disinterested or foul mood) –– looking preoccupied (reading a book, watching a TV screen, concentrating/thinking) –– physically closed: arms crossed, head down, body angled away –– in transit (other purpose that conversing would interrupt) context –– uncomfortable physical proximity –– a space where others can overhear personal conversations (a space that feels overtly public) –– feeling of no escape or being confined
AFTERWORD A major issue that arose out all of this research was the lack of spontaneous interaction due to technology. By constantly being connected to your existing social networks, e.g. through mobile social networking sites, email, text messaging, etc, people are less likely to engage with strangers around them. Though the internet can be an excellent anonymous venue for confiding in strangers, it cannot replicate or replace the same level of comfort or sense of connection that emerge from meaningful, face-to-face interactions with strangers. Part of dealing with the stresses of everyday life comes from being able to share that burden with others, i.e. relating through “the human condition”. Knowing you are not alone in your thoughts, feelings, and experiences is what ultimately connects all humans. That people feel compelled to initiate conversations that enter the realm of confiding attests to the human need to experience real— not just virtual—connectedness. Design could play a pivotal role in realizing this need. By creating a space, unplugged and open, conducive to confiding and clear in its purpose, people would have the socially acceptable and engaging opportunity to fulfill their desire for greater human connectedness.
Published on Oct 26, 2011
I conducted field research to shed light on the question: why do people confide in strangers? Using design probes, interviews, and method c...