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

SP: The title of your new book is Humans of New York: Stories. Why are the stories important?

There is enough drama and comedy and emotion and love in the life of every person to formulate a story that will captivate millions of people.

BS: Well, the blog started as photography; it was very photographically centered. When I first moved to New York, my goal was to take 10,000 photos of people on the street. And I wasn’t having conversations with the subjects. I wasn’t getting quotes from them. And then I realized, after a while, that I was already approaching these people. I was already getting over the discomfort of engaging with a stranger, so why not go the natural next step and find out a little bit about this person? Find out who they are.

And so I started including quotes from the people that I was photographing, and then suddenly those quotes turned into longer quotes, and then it turned into 30- or 45-minute interviews that I have with each subject I stop. And the goal in those interviews is to find out a story that that person can tell me that I haven’t heard from the other 10,000 people I’ve stopped. That’s what really my interview process centers around is asking the questions that I need to ask in order to locate a story that happened in that person’s life that is compelling. And if every single person has a story that—if told with enough attention to detail—could be compelling to an audience of millions of people and that is what my blog is based on: that principle that there is enough drama and comedy and emotion and love in the life of every person to formulate a story that will captivate millions of people.

SP: Some social psychologists theorize that we sympathize with and feel compassion for others to the degree that we perceive they’re like us. But, so most of the people that we see on Humans of New York are not only strangers, but are often really different from us. So how do you account for the connection people feel with the pictures and the stories?

BS: Maybe it’s because I describe the difference in enough detail that it can allow someone to imagine being in that situation. For example, I was interviewing Syrian refugees and those Syrian refugees could probably not be having more polar opposite experience than my average fan, who is probably sitting comfortably in a two-story home somewhere. But I took so much time to learn these people’s stories and to recount them in a sort of detail that almost allows you to experience their lives vicariously in almost a first-person sense that maybe that allowed people, even though it was a very different experience, to place themselves in that experience and see how a different set of circumstances could possibly land them in that same place.

SP: And that imagination, imagining yourself in someone else’s place, why is having empathy for strangers important?

BS: I mean, that’s kind of getting into a moral field. I think the more you are able to identify with somebody else’s experience and struggles, the more you are able to interact with them in a sympathetic manner. The more that you are able to work out problems with that person because you’re seeing them almost as on the same plane as you, as opposed to some sort of enemy or some person to be feared, and there could be more collaboration there. You know, that’s really in the realm of preachers and priests, I think, to tell us why it’s important to love one another and have empathy for one another. But you know all I can speak to is the ability of telling a very detailed story about someone’s life to create that empathy.

SP: And then, finally, let’s apply this. How do you think we as humans can have greater empathy for strangers?

BSI mean, I think it’s the most simple thing in the world: just learn about them, right? And I think the Internet’s already doing that. It’s already creating these sub-communities that reach across boundaries, and reach across barriers and borders that allow people to connect on other grounds besides nationality, and I think that, inherently, it has a pacifying effect in the world. I think it’s just a greater flow of information and, hopefully, storytelling has a role in that, too.

SP: That’s perfect. Brandon. Thank you so much for being here. After reading all the stories that you get from people, it’s great to hear your side of the story.

BS: Well, thank you so much.

SP: Brandon Stanton is the creator of the photo blog, Humans of New York, and, most recently, the author of Humans of New York: Stories.  

You can purchase a copy of Humans of New York: Stories on AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBoundBooks-a-Million, or Apple.

For more on the popularity of Humans of New York,  check out The Psychology of Why We Love Humans of New York. Then be sure to head on over to the Savvy Psychology Facebook page and share how HONY has affected you.


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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen 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.