Humans of New York's Brandon Stanton on How to Talk to Strangers

Brandon Stanton, creator, photographer, interviewer, and author of the recent New York Times bestseller Humans of New York: Stories, discusses how to talk to strangers, the importance of having greater empathy, and more.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #91

Savvy Psychologist: This week we’ll talk about how to talk to strangers and with us is the expert. Brandon Stanton is the creator, photographer, and interviewer behind the acclaimed and wildly popular blog, Humans of New York. His new book is Humans of New York: Stories. Brandon, thank you so much for being on the show.

Brandon Stanton: Thank you.

SP: People are truly moved by your work. Plus, they love it. You have 16 million likes on Facebook and, as of a few weeks ago, two #1 New York Times bestsellers. Why do you think Humans of New York is so compelling?

BS: I think there is a sort of paradox of one seeing a picture of somebody on the blog that you do not know and that you have never met before and represents a stranger to you, but then at the same time, you’re hearing a story or a quote from them that is very intimate and very revealing and is indicative of something that they might only tell their best friend or someone very close to them. And so I think that combination of seeing a photo of somebody that you know nothing about except for this—one kind of very vulnerable or intimate piece of information—is a very powerful combination.

You have to earn the comfort through being uncomfortable many, many times.

SP: I think you get the specific and universal at the same time, it sounds like.


SP: Usually getting to know someone happens, 1.) gradually, and 2.) reciprocally, but you’ve turned this on its head. How do you get people to tell you intimate details in a short amount of time and, I’m assuming, without matching their level of disclosure?

BSRight, I’m trying to think: gradually and reciprocally. Well, it’s definitely not gradually and, like you said, I’m normally the one that asks the questions so maybe I’m not reciprocating.

SP: Exactly.

BS: It’s something that is very intangible, but I think it just kind of comes down to energy—and the energy that I’m giving off is not of a stranger. It’s very hard to describe. But I’ve had people follow me around before who were journalists and after I finish talking to one of my subjects, they would move in and ask questions about the experience. And the tone shift between the conversation that I had with the person and the conversation that the journalist had with the person was very noticeable to me, and it kind of shined a light for me on why I think it is that people get so comfortable. It’s that the conversations are very conversational. They aren’t questions like, “So what do you think about this?” and “What do you think about that?” It’s like I almost start talking to them as if a relationship had already been established, as if we knew each other for a very long time and again, it’s not something that I learned. I think it’s just something that, in approaching 10,000 people, I reached a degree of comfort and a degree of ease in conversing that possibly brings out a reciprocal level of ease and comfort in the other person.

SP: This is actually a perfect build-up then because you’ve said in previous interviews that the successful approach is all in the energy and that the worst way to approach somebody is to be nervous. But one of the hardest things to do in life is to approach and meet new people.

BS: Right.

SP: Like you said, you do this everyday and you’ve approached 10,000 people, so what advice would you give on how to approach someone new?

BS: Oh, I mean you just have to earn it. You can’t really be given advice, you know. I was already somebody who I thought was pretty good at interacting with people, but even those first months that I was on the street-stopping strangers, I was so scared every time I walked up to somebody. There’s something about approaching someone and the possibility of being rejected that inherently makes you nervous. And I just had to do it so many times that I had seen all the different outcomes that could possibly come from approaching a stranger on the street so nothing scared me anymore, nothing frightened me anymore. There were no longer any unknowns. I had seen it all. I had seen every possible reaction that a stranger could have to me by approaching them on the street, so there was nowhere for my imagination to go and create this kind of anxiety in me. I had seen it all before, I knew that I could handle it, and so I got to the point where I could just approach people very comfortably without any worry or anxiety about what their reaction would be. And that could only be earned. And so I would just have to tell people that if you want to talk to strangers and if you want be comfortable talking to strangers, the only way to do it is to approach strangers while you’re uncomfortable. You have to earn the comfort through being uncomfortable many, many times.

SP: So you have to go through the fear, it sounds like, not around it.

BS: Exactly.

See Also: The Psychology of Why We Love Humans of New York


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About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.