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03 Context (Lonely in the crowd)

Context Inquiry

Download PDF Documentation here (2.4MB) Download PDF Presentation here (6.5MB)


The conclusion is based on all the open interviews and conversation I had over the last weeks. The stories of feeling a strong connection are an essential part of the conclusion itself. First and foremost it is a personal interpretation of the information I collected, saw, heard and experiences in this time.


Why and how to start a conversation in public, is a very essential question. Only if I understand the different motivations behind the demand for communication, I can simulate a environment that connects people to each other. In this chapter I cover different reasons of what makes strangers talk to each other in public today.
Common interests
Having things in common makes people feel connected, and will lower the barriers of starting a conversation. As soon as there is a specific topic you can talk about, you don’t need to be worried about an awkward, non-sens chat. If for example you listen to a conversation of two persons talking about the recent public votes in your city and you really feel like taking part in the discussion, it is very easy and mostly accepted that you give your personal opinion as well. But the interests are not only visible through speech, but also through the look of the person. For example if the person is carrying a snowboard, wearing outdoor clothes and the train is heading to the mountains it is obvious that he’s goes snowboarding. A feeling of having something in common can also appear when experiencing something together. If for example the train suddenly stops and nobody knows what’s going on this can be the trigger to start a conversation with a stranger.
People are curious by nature. If you see something that is of interest, you’ll try to find out the more about it. For example if someone is using a electrical device you haven’t seen or heard of, you probably start asking questions about it or at least take a closer look without the owner noticing it. Here also the curiosity can arise by listening to a conversation and the wish to find out more about it. Making a compliment to a stranger in public space is not very common in Switzerland. People tend to keep this comments for themselves. But sometimes it does happen here too. For example compliments can be about the clothes the person is wearing, about the good manners or about something just mentioned in a discussion with someone else. Children often start talking to strangers because they are very curious about everything and everyone. The good thing about children is that they’re not scared of asking questions to strangers, they just start to talk when ever they feel like doing so.
Helping people is always something you can be proud of and makes you feel good afterwards. And there’s always the thought, that maybe someday you will be happy to have someone helping you too. But to realize that your help is needed the other person needs to call for help first or at least look like she really needs help. This could be in a situation where you realize that a visual impaired person has problems finding the toilet or if a person is being sexually harassed by another. So here too, the necessity of you interacting with the person has to be obvious and clearly visible to you.
Sexual attraction
Finding someone else sexually appealing, is probably one of the most common reasons why people try to start a conversation and get to know each other. It seems to be a very strong motivator to overcome one’s inhibitions. But because you are interested in that specific person you start to think of ruining the whole situation with no second chance left much more. So this is were fear becomes a essential part of your decisions. The obstacles that stand in the way when trying to get in contact with someone will be discussed later.
Feeling lonely
It sometimes happens that people start talking to a stranger because they want to escape from their own loneliness. But it makes it hard to communicate in a neutral way, because if you don’t have a good topic to talk about, it immediately puts you in the situation where the other person realizes that you are lonely. Elderly people often start conversations with strangers, because they don’t have anyone else in their private life to talk to. One interviewee in the age of 75 told me that she often meets other people in her age that are only in the train to socialize with others.
If a person is totally ignoring social rules in public, acting very rude or is even harassing someone else, it often leads to an argue with a stranger. Anger makes people act more quickly because they suddenly feel involved into the situation and have the need to act. It is the their moral courage that makes people acting in these emotional situations.
In order to have a nice talk, first of all both parties have to be in the mood to communicate to each other. This may sound trivial, but if one person is not ready it is almost impossible to convince her to take part in a conversation. As more the people expose their personal interests, opinions, personality and style to the strangers around them, as easier it becomes to react to it and get in contact. But this also requires the surrounding people to be observant, consciously watching and listening to the scenery. This behaviour will encourage people to start a conversation.


Many times there basically is a motivation of starting a conversation with a stranger. But often people fail because they can’t raise the courage to approach the stranger. For my project I have to try to clear the path from as many obstacles as possible that stand in the way of a motivated person making the final step towards the target subject.
Being turned down
No one likes to be turned down, or to fail in general in he’s life. Most people are scared of situations where they risk to fail or lose face in some way and therefor try to avoid them. It becomes even worse if other people are able to notice one’s failure. If you get turned down, feelings like anger an embarrassment become very strong. And it will make it even harder for the next time you would like to talk to someone.
Invading someones personal space
Swiss people highly value their personal space. It is considered rude if you invade someones personal space without any given reason. So if you start talking to someone you have to have a good reason for the person to accept you and not feeling intimidated.
Making a wrong impression
Sometimes you are too nervous or just can’t find the right words to describe your intent when talking to a stranger. This becomes especially awkward if the person totally misinterprets your goal. If for example you just tried to say something nice about someones shoes and the person thinks you have sexual interests. Once you lose the persons trust it is very hard to get back into a neutral situation where you can talk in an objective and liberal way.
Being exposed
Especially in trains where it is silent, people are scared of starting a conversation with a stranger because everyone else in the close range is able to hear every single word. It gets even more embarrassing if the stranger you are trying to talk to shows no interest in having a conversation with you. You immediately start thinking about what the surrounding people might think right now.
No escape
If the situation starts to get really bad or embarrassing for you, there is no escaping in the train. You are somehow trapped in your cabin and will need to stay there until the train arrives at your desired destination. People are aware of this, and it will make them think twice if they risk getting into this situation.
It is all about overcoming the fear of starting a conversation with a stranger. Even if the person is a complete stranger, people seem to be very scared of their reaction and losing face other strangers. As I experiences it myself while making interviews with strangers, as more you talk to strangers as less you think about all these fears, you get used to it and learn to overcome your inhibition.