How to get two strangers to talk to each other

Mandi Cai
6 min readDec 22, 2016

Some of the more interesting conversations I’ve had in my lifetime were with strangers.

“What’s your favorite instrument?” “Oh, I’d have to say the drums. There’s something about them that reminds me of the intrinsic rhythmic beating of our heartbeats.”

“Hey, I enjoy this lighting. Take a whimsical selfie with me. By the way, I invented the selfie stick.”

“Do you speak Mandarin?” (the conversation ensues in Mandarin, and I find out that this person grew up in the same hometown in China as my dad.)

There are moments when you find yourself sitting next to a stranger, either at a bus stop or sitting in the park, with zero incentive to strike up a conversation. Zero motivation to talk to a human who has lived through diverse experiences that have probably never crossed your mind, yet is still an average person that could relate to you on so many levels.

It’s bizarre. You’d think that, as social animals, we’d grasp for those opportunities. But it’s also completely understandable. For X,Y,Z reasons, you want that moment of silence to scroll on your phone or ponder your own thoughts. On top of that, Mom warned you to avoid strangers.

But what if we used those moments to talk to the other person and find out more about their personal narratives? What then? Humans of New York became popular because it published untold stories of different people, and we appreciated the candor, the honesty, the reality. We gravitate towards the little triumphs and tragedies in life.

Last year, 5 of us sought to understand “public” spaces and figure out a way to increase “creative capital” by incentivizing individuals to talk to other individuals. That’s just a fancy way of saying “Let’s get people to talk to eachother and see what happens. Cool ideas will be formed, and things will happen. Yeah.”

Our Research

Step one …. figure out what public spaces you’d like to observe, and then take a field trip to observe people like the innate people-watcher you are.

We chose to focus on bus stops, public benches, and parks/plazas. Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence had all of the above, so we spent the afternoon there writing down observations, conducting interviews, and taking photos.

Followed by a session where we shared our findings and found common themes …

Our Brainstorming

Themes we noticed: people did not like to converse with one another (in fact, they do everything to avoid conversation), eye contact usually led to better conversation, and asking for help was a good segway into asking about the other person. Deliberate attempts to strike up conversation rendered you as “creepy” or “untrustworthy,” but chance encounters that forced two people to talk were usually successful.

Alright, so now what?

We began the process of taking those themes and turning them into an object, piece of furniture, etc.

You can see an array of things, from dispensers to mailboxes, from benches to signs. The common link between each idea was the purpose of creating more conversation between people by introducing the perfect segway.

One idea really stuck with us, and that was the idea of a bench as the platform for conversation.

People sit on benches often in a variety of public spaces. If there were no available empty benches within range, and you were forced to sit next to a stranger, you would probably do everything possible to avoid eye contact with this other person. Pursuing a bench design also satisfied our initial desire to create furniture.

Drawing by Kenta Kondo

Our Implementation:

We decided on an L-shaped bench because it seemed like a great design that allowed for two people to sit near each other, without forcing them to sit next to each other. The key component of this bench was the added feature of prompting two people to say “Hey”… and maybe continue talking. This conversation-starting feature also had to incorporate the honest, candid, and even goofy aspects of meeting another person for the first time. As I mentioned previously when referencing HONY, people like to see funny and genuine behavior because it highlights the other individual’s approachable nature and erases the fight-or-flight fear that this stranger might be unpleasant.

Whew. That’s a lot to think about. How did we do it?

We went back to our findings and remembered that the easiest ways to ignite conversations were through two scenarios: asking another person for help and making eye contact. Given that the second scenario could potentially come off as creepy if done poorly, we expanded on the first scenario.

Benches. Butts. Sitting on benches in the winter. Heat. Benchwarmers. Heated seats. Heated Butts.

Bingo: we would design an L-shaped bench that would only heat up its seats when two people sat on it, thus giving the perfect excuse for a person to ask a passerby to sit on the bench with them. During a brutal winter afternoon, there is truly no shame in asking someone for this kind of help, and the moment that both individuals feel their butts being heated is just subtle and awkward enough to get words to start flowing (and maybe some chemistry?). At the end of the day, both of you win because heated butts = happy people.

The execution of this bench required a lot of different skills: software, hardware, woodworking, metalworking, and upholstering.

Software was written through Arduino’s language, and the required hardware included two Flexiforce pressure sensors, two Arduino UNO’s, a sh*tton of heating pads, a sh*tton of batteries, and a lot of perserverence. The bench part consisted of metal, birch plywood, and cotton upholstery.

And here’s the finished product:

So yeah, we did the thing and it works. Right now, it has an 100% success rate because we’ve only tested it on a grand total of 4 people. But our goal is to put the bench in a public space on campus and actually see how many conversations/friendships/relationships are started on our “benchwarmer.”

It’s weird and a little obnoxious. But I think it could actually work and satisfy our original objective: we’re all humans and we need to talk more, so let’s build something to encourage that. Because conversation leads to more understanding, and more understanding leads to more empathy. It’s a small step in the right direction.

Plus, we get to say that we designed buttwarmers to fluster random strangers. ← that, right there, is a pretty great conversation starter.

(Many thanks to Arielle Chapin, Robert Lee, and Sofya Zelikman for your wonderful ideas and teamwork. Many many many thanks to Kenta Kondo for pursuing the bench idea with me and teaching me everything about building.)