Why would five thousand strangers across the country meet for tea? And what could you learn if you spent a few hours talking with people you've never met? Find out with Ankit Shah, founder of Tea with Strangers. in episode 5 of The Control Room: Conversations for Growing Companies.
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Below is an excerpt of my interview with Ankit Shah, founder of Tea with Strangers. To hear the whole discussion – and other conversations with entrepreneurs and experts – subscribe in iTunes here.
Tell us a little bit about Tea with Strangers.
It’s a community organization that I started about a year and a half ago. We bring strangers together for meaningful conversations in big cities. And we do it through a large community of hosts that we’ve grown and the hosts are people that bring together conversations and invite anybody and everybody to sit with them to talk about anything and everything.
It manifests itself in a small group conversation called Tea Time. A host and a few strangers sit together at a table at a café or a park and they just talk. And there is no pre-determined topic or anything of the nature. They just see where it goes.
Who attends Tea Time?
I’ll be honest. If you were to ask me this before I started the organization, I wouldn’t really know who would do this because it’s very random. It’s a very unusual thing to carve out time for, because a lot of times when we do things like this, we’re usually going to large events. We’re going to a party or something interesting that has like a catch to it.
For example, something that’s been growing a lot in New York City and a lot of other cities around the country is this thing called Daybreaker. They do these early morning dance parties, which I think is so cool. But, see, what they do is cool. You go, you dance early in the morning, there’s something fascinating and new about that.
Tea with Strangers does not have that same sort of appeal. If you really think about it, what we do is conversations. So it does confuse me the people who come. Why are you coming? But over time, obviously, I’ve run the organization for enough time and met enough people through the organization to have a better grasp on why they come and who they actually are.
The best thing I could say is that it’s a bunch of young people. They’re usually in their 20s and 30s. They are curious. They are very, very curious and they’re also constantly trying to discover themselves, whether or not they actually say that.
They might not say that I’m trying to discover myself because for some people that’s language that they don’t use. But in the sense of getting a sense of purpose and figuring out how you see the world, where you want to dedicate your time and what sorts of interests that you really want to cultivate, when you don’t know what those things are, which is true for a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, this emerging adulthood period, it’s really, really helpful to talk to people.
Mind you, the conversations that people have are not about how I should live my life. They’re not conversations that say, I’m going through challenges, can you guys help me. It’s conversations that are very much just talking about different subjects and sharing stories and getting a sense of who the people around you actually are on a human level. Things that might be seemingly mundane to catch up on over a party. But things that you would talk about if there’s only 3 or 4 or 5 of you. And I think in those stories and in those shared reflections during a very kind of a quiet stable conversation where you’re not really going anywhere, there’s no activity centering a group of people besides talking. In that kind of environment, people really get an opportunity to discover themselves.
Do people feel more free to talk to strangers about things than maybe they would to people they know? Do you find that people are like comfortable in this kind of environment? Or does it take some warming up and getting people to say things?
It varies. I think on a grand level, people are more interested in saying things to strangers that they wouldn’t say to people they know. There’s fewer strings attached. There’s less of a burden of, what does that mean in the grander context of a relationship? So the idea of like you might think something of me, only really matters if you’re a person that’s going to be consistent in my life in the future in some way or fashion.
But if you’re just an anonymous face, you are Josh, someone that I’m talking to just right now, and then maybe I might never see you again, or there’s no obligation to doing so, that is kind of liberating. And I think in those contexts people are a little more comfortable opening up around one another.
It’s on your website, so I have to ask: What do you say to people who say that this is weird?
You’re right. It is. So what? If you don’t like doing weird things then maybe right now you shouldn’t come. Eventually, this isn’t going to be weird. And when it’s not weird, maybe then you could come. But if you think it’s weird and that’s a turn off for you, then okay. That’s fine. Don’t come. And I don’t say that with disdain. I rather say that with a sense of, you should be allowed to do things that make you feel comfortable. And some people seek the discomfort that Tea with Strangers might bring them.
It’s the same reason that people like lifting heavy weights. It hurts. And why would someone ever enjoy that? Because it makes them stronger. It makes them a better person at the end of it. They learn something about themselves in the process. Same thing about running. Why do people run marathons? It does not seem like an enjoyable way to spend time. I can think of a lot of things I would rather do than run a marathon, like maybe eat a pizza.
But why do I still run? This morning, I ran 8 miles. And then I just had pizza for lunch right before you and I are talking. I did both. Why? Because running makes me feel really good. And then again, pizza makes me feel really good. So I do both.
There’s nothing mutually exclusive about going to a tea time and then going to happy hour the way normal people do. You can meet people at happy hour and meet people at tea time. They’re both allowed.