We, as strangers, are interesting.
In passing, we let our preconceived notions guide our impressions of each other, so we'll judge each other by what we wear, how we walk, the color of our skin, whatever. It helps us keep our guard up towards each other.
Give us a few patient minutes together, though, and we'll find commonalities — if we are watching a street show, on a long line for coffee, or engaging in something else together. Instead of finding reasons to keep our guard up, we open ourselves up, however slightly, to the things that bring us together because, well, they're right in front of us. It just requires an agreement to the fact that we're together.
A year ago, I had a six weeks left at UPenn when I created a website to ask strangers of the Penn community to sit together for conversations. I had no idea if it would catch on, but people really took to it and immediately started to respond. In the time I had before graduation, I gathered almost 200 strangers together in groups of five for what I called tea time.
All you knew coming into tea time was that the host (me) and some random group of a few people would be there, and we'd sit and talk for 2-3 hours. There wasn't much else to it. Maybe friends would be made, but in all likelihood, the event would be transient, which only added to its beauty. It just made it easier to be open and honest with each other. Impermanence made it okay to be authentic the same way Snapchat makes it easy to send an ugly selfie. But instead of a 10 second ‘snap’ to people you knew, it was a several hour conversation with stories, questions, and lots of listening.
When I moved to the Bay Area after graduation, I created a website similar to the one I made at college, but this time, it was directed at the entire Bay Area. It spread like wildfire, and I hosted tea time with hundreds of people before I realized that I wasn't the only one that could bring these conversations together, and that's when Tea With Strangers was born.
Now there's a horde of hosts in the Bay Area bringing tea time together almost every day, and it's coming to cities everywhere all because I wanted to know: what if we really knew the people we passed by each day? Shared in their joys, their pains, knew what made them tick, what made up their story and their lives? These conversations with strangers make that possible, creating the open opportunity to ask questions, share stories, and understand each other just a little better.
Ankit Shah is an aspiring good guy that created Tea With Strangers — a movement to make empathy more approachable. He also works with SEEKHO to empower the dreams of societies in rural India. Previously, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied Operations and Marketing.
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