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Episode 1: The kindness of strangers

Everyone's got a story about that time you were stuck without money or a ride, and then some complete stranger comes along and saves the day. We're not talking about knights in shining armor here, just regular people who step up to help, even when there's nothing in it for them. In this episode, we explore the importance of connecting with people you don't know, those tricky situations where trust is the only thing you can rely on, and how we're all strangers—until we're not.

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Transcript

FEMALE: One time that a stranger—actually, a few strangers—helped me was when my preschooler decided to run away from home.

MALE: I'm pretty forgetful with my credit card. More than once, someone comes running to give it back to me, and that's always nice.

FEMALE: The time my tire blew out on the highway, every single person who came by stopped and offered to help. It felt good, like there was a community of decent people out there.

TAMARA STANNERS: Today on Relate, we're talking about the kindness of strangers. Everyone's got a story about that time you were stuck without money or a ride, and then some complete stranger comes along and saves the day. We're not talking about knights in shining armor here, just regular people who step up to help, even when there's nothing in it for them—or maybe there is something in it. We're going to explore that idea with stories about the importance of connecting with people you don't know, about tricky situations where trust is the only thing you can rely on, and how we're all strangers until we're not.

MALE: You're listening to Relate.

FEMALE: You're listening to Relate by Zendesk.

MALE: Zendesk builds software for better customer relationships.

FEMALE: For better customer relationships.

TAMARA STANNERS: Welcome to Relate by Zendesk. It's a show about relationships and how we connect, how we understand each other, how we work together. This first story starts with a simple act of kindness, but this simple act aims to rebuild families and communities around the world. This is the story of Miracle Messages.

MALE: Hi, Rebecca. It's Daddy. I wanted to renew contact with you, and I-

FEMALE: Gloria, I've been looking for y'all. I want to see y'all. Please get in contact with me.

MALE: My name is Michael. Mom, I love you, and I miss you, and I need to see you.

KEVIN ADLER: My Uncle Mark had been homeless for about 30 years. He'd lived on and off the streets, but I never saw him as a homeless man. He was my beloved uncle. After he passed away, I just started thinking about the process of commemoration in our society and storytelling more generally. It struck me that we use smartphones and social media and digital devices to capture and share our stories, but for individuals on and off the streets like my Uncle Mark, it didn't seem that there was really much being done to share their stories, share a glimpse of their humanity, and help people see the world through their eyes.

My name is Kevin Adler, and I'm the founder and CEO of Miracle Messages. Miracle Messages helps houseless individuals record short video messages to their long-lost loved ones, and then delivers them using social media and a global network of volunteers. About two years ago, I took a walk down Market Street in San Francisco speaking with individuals who were experiencing homelessness and asking a very simple question: if they had any family or friends that they'd like to reconnect with, even if they didn't know how to reach them. I kept hearing over and over again, "I never realized I was homeless when I lost my housing, only when I lost my family and friends that provided me with support."

That was the insight that really struck me and prompted me to, two years ago this Christmas, walk down the street in San Francisco and offer this service to anyone who was interested in recording a holiday message. On that walk, I met a man named Jeffrey who hadn't seen his family in over 22 years. He recorded a video to his sister and his niece and nephew. That night, really not sure what to do with the video, I did a search on Facebook and I found that there was a Facebook group connected to his hometown. So I sent them the video and the information and asked if they'd be willing to share it.

Within a few hours, by the end of the night, that video had been shared dozens of times, liked hundreds of times, made the local news that night as a leading story. Friends from high school, classmates, neighbors, commented, "Hey, I know this guy. He's my friend. What can I do to help him?" In the first 20 minutes of the post, his sister was tagged. So I got on the phone with her the next day. She said not only had they been out of touch for 22 years, that he's been a missing person for 12 years. He was missing in broad daylight. They were able to reunite, and I just began wondering: How many other people out there may be a short video message away from being able to reconnect to their family and friends?

When I met Isaac, he had not seen his family in over 40 years. He got connected with Miracle Messages, recorded a short video message to his brothers and sisters and his mom, and that video reached his family. His entire family recorded videos responses to him.

MALE: Isaac, it was amazing to see you today on that video after over 40 years of not knowing where you're at. I missed you, not knowing where you've been at. I'm just here to tell you I love you, my family loves you, and we want you to come back.

KEVIN ADLER: His mom, an elderly Mexican-American woman, doesn't speak a word of English; she couldn't understand the video. So her son, her other son, translated it for her. Once she understood who it was and what it was, she couldn't help but crying and asking to replay it and touching the screen as she was crying. They reconnected on a phone call.

MALE: Chico.

MALE: How are you?

MALE: Okay.

MALE: Chico.

MALE: Si.

MALE: It's good to hear from you.

MALE: I saw y'all on video here. My God.

MALE: Yes, I know, I know, I know. It's emotional.

MALE: I am, too, right now.

KEVIN ADLER: Then, a few weeks later, his sister drove from Texas to Florida to pick him up and bring him back home. He's now living with his family again after just about 40 years apart and being on and off the streets for many, many years.

To me, there is a real potential in the art of asking a question and the art of approaching each other. We start with a really revolutionary set of questions which begins with, "Hi. How are you? How long have you lived here? Do you have family nearby?" From there, you can almost imagine the logical chain of conversation. "You don't have family nearby. Where do they live? Are you in touch with them? When was the last time you saw them? Oh, would you like to get back in touch with them? Oh, do you have any family or friends that you'd like to maybe record a video to as a way of getting back in touch, even if you don't know how to reach them? I can help with that. I'm a volunteer with Miracle Messages. My name is such-and-such." It's us getting away from this houseless-or-housed framework, seeing each other as people again, and being able to work together to solve problems together.

TAMARA STANNERS: It's an amazing project, isn't it? It seems to work, too. So far, 90% of the people who've received messages reacted positively and over 40% of the reunions have led to stable housing or living with family again. If you want to find out more about the Miracle Messages project or to connect with a local chapter, visit MiracleMessages.org.

MALE: You're listening to Relate by Zendesk.

FEMALE: Zendesk helps your business turn interactions into lasting relationships.

TAMARA STANNERS: Connecting with a stranger involves a fair bit of trust. You size a person up, you make snap decisions based on all sorts of subtle cues, and you decide pretty quickly if you can trust that person or not. But what if that stranger needs your help? What if you're not sure you can trust them? What do you do? Do you ignore your instincts? Do you ignore their plea? Here's DAVY ROTHBART with a story about what happens when the kindness of a stranger runs smack into some serious trust issues.

DAVY ROTHBART: How do you build trust with a total stranger, someone you're meeting for the first time? We're taught from a young age that stranger means danger, but what if you need to rely on a stranger to help you out? Why should a stranger help you without knowing your true motives, without knowing if you really are who you say you are? These days, you get a flat tire, you need a jumpstart, you just pull out your cell phone and call for roadside assistance. There was a time in the not-so-distant past, before smartphones, when car trouble meant relying on the kindness of strangers.

All right. Let me take you all the way back to a frigid winter night in February 2003. I was racing along I-94 toward the Detroit airport when my van made a sound like a cannon shot and broke down just a couple of miles from the terminal. Desperate to catch my flight, I abandoned my van on the shoulder and hitched a ride the rest of the way from a tow truck driver who happened to be passing by. I missed my flight anyway and the next flight to Austin, Texas wasn't until the next morning.

I had to find a way back to my van. It was just a five-minute drive, but maybe a 90-minute walk in the stinging cold. I started asking for a ride from just random people waiting for their bags at baggage claim. I hadn't shaved in a few days, I was wearing lime green pants with a long tear I'd repaired with staples, and my own luggage consisted only of an old backpack and a gym bag.

At last, a middle-aged businessman standing with a couple of buddies, he took pity on me and offered to drop me off at my van. His pals raised their eyebrows, flashed worried looks, and said, "See you at the office tomorrow." But in a tone that meant, "If you get robbed and killed we'll pay for the kid's bar mitzvah." On our way to the parking garage, my new friend immediately seemed to be second-guessing himself. He sank into a deep unease, squeezed between the grave danger he now imagined he was in and the fact that there was no way to exit the situation gracefully. The last thing I wanted was for him to get cold feet and change his mind, so I started chatting him up.

"Hey man, thanks so much for lift. You're a real lifesaver." I told him. "My name's Davy by the way." He shook my hand but didn't offer his name. Instead he said, "You don't have a gun, do you?" "I don't have a gun." I promised him, "I'm a writer and a public-radio reporter. If we have a strong pledge drive next year, maybe they'll finally issue us weapons."

When we reached his car, he loaded his own suitcase into the trunk, then unlocked the driver's door with a key rather than a clicker on his key chain, which would've perhaps unlocked my door too. We hooked gazes across the hood. This, I realized, was the moment of truth. He really didn't want to risk becoming a cautionary tale on Channel 50's 10 o'clock news, I really didn't want to risk having to beg for another ride. After a taut couple of beats, the guy heaved a side and popped the locks.

As we left the garage and cruised down the airport's service roads towards the freeway, the guy kept giving me jumpy glances. He seemed so certain that his life was in jeopardy and that I was about to rob him, I started thinking I really was about to rob him. I didn't have an 11-inch blade in my coat crooked between my arm and my ribs, but he seemed to believe I did. It was all very stressful and confusing. The car was thick with criminal tension.

The guy took notice of the block M on my worn baseball cap. "Michigan fan?" He asked. "Yeah." I said. "I grew up in Ann Arbor and I went to school there too." "Really?" He said smiling, "So did I. Class of '82. I lived in East Quad." He seemed to finally be coming around. Just one alum helping another alum out of a jam. "Where'd you live?" He asked me. "I lived in East Quad, too." It was actually true, but once I said it, I realized it sounded made up. "Really?" He said, suspicious again. "East Quad, huh? What about after you moved out of the dorms?" "I lived in a house on ..." Oh, no. The whole weird scene had caused my brain to seize up.

"It was on that one street, you know that little curvy one kind of near Bell's Pizza?" I grew a little frenzied. "I just can't remember the name of it. It's just off that other street, that one-way street down by the ... by the ... We used to hang out on the roof." I trailed off, hanging my head like a teenage felon at his sentencing. There was no longer any doubt in the guy's mind that his life was at stake. His hands clenched the steering wheel and his mind seemed to be whirling with escape plans.

He forced a little grin. "So, what's your line of work?" "Well, like I said, I'm kind of a writer and I do stuff for public radio sometimes, and I also make a magazine called Found, which is all notes and letters that people find on the ground. Here let me show you something." I started reaching into my backpack to pull out a copy of the magazine and the guy panicked and almost swerved off the freeway ramp."Keep your hands where I can see them please." He cried. "Just put your backpack in the back seat." "Okay. Look, I'm doing it." "The other bag too. The gym bag. Put the gym bag in back." "Okay. Look, the gym bag's going in the back. Now it's in the back. Everything's okay."

A long, awkward and troubled silence fell between us, like a pair of boxcar hobos after a drunken brawl that neither side has won. Finally, a minute later, I said, "There's my van, just past the bridge." "I see it." He slowed down, but then grew anxious again, perhaps thinking that my crew was waiting in the shadows, and that this was where he'd be ambushed. We coasted an extra quarter of a mile past the van before he pulled over. I felt a little sad that I hadn't been able to melt his distrust. "Listen," I said, "I know you could've just ignored me back there at the airport like everyone else. Thanks for taking a chance on me." "No problem." He said, watching the rear view mirror, still not quite feeling free from peril.

I climbed out of the car and was lashed by an Arctic wind. I tried to open the back doors to grab my stuff, but they were locked. The guy jammed on the gas and started peeling away. Holy double cross? He'd been the real conman all along? Then he stopped and the locks popped open again. I trotted up to him and grabbed my backpack and my gym bag. "Be careful out there." I said. "Stay warm." He said.

SPEAKER 1: Davy Rothbart is the editor of Found magazine, host of the Found podcast, and author of a book of essays, My Heart Is an Idiot. You're listening to Relate by Zendesk.

SPEAKER 3: Zendesk builds software for better customer relationships.

SPEAKER 1: We've been talking about the kindness of strangers on the podcast. This next story really shows the value of connecting with people we don't know. This is the story of COLIN EASTON and his Stranger Project. It was this simple idea that Colin devised to help him get out of a deep depression. The idea was to strike up a conversation with a new stranger every day for a year. The project led to one particular friendship that affected his life in ways he couldn't have imagined.

COLIN EASTON: I laid on the couch for days on end. I would go to bed at night and I would get up in the morning and lay on the couch, some days even contemplating having a shower was too much.

SPEAKER 1: This is COLIN EASTON. He suffers from depression. After his diagnosis, he quit his job to focus on his mental health, but after three months, he was still locked up in his apartment lying on his back staring at the ceiling. Colin goes back to his doctor. His doctor sends him to a psychiatrist. His psychiatrist sends him to group therapy and prescribes Colin a combination of medications. His mental health slowly starts to improve, but Colin still feels disconnected from the rest of the world and trapped inside his head. He needed a reason to get up off his couch and leave his apartment.

COLIN: Actually, I was sitting right here where I am now, at my desk in my apartment. It was a really nice sunny day and I actually did want to go for a walk. I just wasn't sure what I was going to do or where I was going to go. That was literally the moment that it was like, "Okay, I am going to go out and see if I can find a stranger and talk to him and see what happens."

TAMARA STANNERS: This spur-of-the-moment decision to leave his apartment that day was the start of something Colin named The Stranger Project. He went out every day for a year.

COLIN: January 1st to December 31st, 2014, meeting a stranger, finding out about that person, writing about it every day, posting it on social media every day, 365 days. TAMARA STANNERS: This is a clip from a documentary about Colin and The Stranger Project called Not a Stranger. It was produced by Kate Green.

COLIN: I'm going to go and see if Tom is at his usual spot. I spotted Tom on day 10, yeah. He really helped me formulate what The Stranger Project is and that was the first time I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. I walked right past him. I wasn't sure if he would talk to me, that was my initial thought, but I stopped myself and thought, "No, you're going out to meet strangers. Don't judge or predetermine what the conversation's going to be." I went back and asked him if he would talk to me and he said, yeah, that he had an incredible story. Tom Anderson: The story starts with me getting early retirement-

COLIN: Ah!

TAMARA STANNERS: This is Tom Anderson.

TOM ANDERSON: I'm happy, happy, happy, living on a beach, and then all of the sudden, I start falling down and getting dizzy and why? One time, I fell down in public, and so it was quite a shock to me.

COLIN: Tom had had brain cancer in 2011 and he had a five-percent chance of survival.

KAREN: He was very open talking about it. His doctor's appointments and he would-

TAMARA STANNERS: This is Karen. She manages the coffee shop Tom visits every morning, so she's gotten to know him really well over the last few years.

KAREN: He would tell us when he had MRI appointments or anything like that. He would come in and tell us, and he was always very positive about the results. He was never not confident that he was going to beat this.

COLIN: When I first met Tom, he was actually going to the doctor every—I think it was about every two months. He was going for regular check-ups post-cancer treatment. As our relationship deepened, as our friendship grew, he was going to hospital less frequently, and for him to go into remission, and then for them to actually beat it, it was definitely worthy of celebration.

TAMARA STANNERS: Tom's a pretty easy guy to spot. He's got a big gray-and-orange beard and always wears a hat, sometimes two. Picture a Crocodile Dundee-style hat on top of a wool beanie.

COLIN: Tom being the creature of habit that he is, I see him usually between 9:00 and 9:30, and he sits at the same spot, he has the same drink. There would be times when I wasn't even intending to go out and I'd be like, "Oh, it's 9:15. I could really do with talking to Tom." I'd leave my house and go and I know that he's there. Part of the reason why Tom and I had bonded is that we were both kind of loners and I didn't really think that he had many people to be there, and that was part of the responsibility that I felt for him sharing his story with me for The Stranger Project.

TAMARA STANNERS: At a quick glance, you might not think Tom and Colin would be friends. They're very different people. Colin's short, he's gay, he's very talkative, he's a writer, and he knows nothing about sports. Tom, on the other hand, is a blue-collar small-city guy. He's reserved, a man of few words, he's also a major sports fan. Karen: Totally into sports. I ended up getting an assistant manager from Ireland and they loved talking about soccer, well, football. That was just his thing, sports and stuff like that.

TAMARA STANNERS: Colin and Tom are very different, but they've grown very close, and when you get to know someone, you can tell when something's wrong.

COLIN: I noticed that he was having trouble with depth of field, so he couldn't quite see. He couldn't light his cigarette, he didn't know where the end of the cigarette was in terms of putting the lighter towards the end, and he started falling again.

TAMARA STANNERS: Tom goes back to the doctor. They do a bunch of tests and some scans.

KAREN: Then, he came into the store, and this is, I think, where you have those moments where you're just like, "Okay, I just, I know where this is going."

COLIN: He just handed me the piece of paper and you could see really clearly that there was a very large tumor again.

TAMARA STANNERS: At this point, Tom has to use a walker. He can no longer climb the steps to get to his bench. Then, one morning, Tom isn't at his bench at all, so Colin goes into the coffee shop to ask Karen if she's seen Tom, but she hasn't for a few days. Colin goes to Tom's apartment.

COLIN: Somebody knew who I was and let me into his building, and for whatever reason, he hadn't locked his door that night so I was able to actually get into his place. He was incapacitated on his bed. He wasn't able to move. I said, "Okay, I think it's time we called an ambulance." I went up twice a day, every day. I went up in the morning and took his mocha, which, by that point, the coffee shop wouldn't let us pay for anymore, they were buying them. It was kind of our morning ritual, I'd go and still have coffee with Tom, but it'd be at Tom's bed, not at Tom's bench.

KAREN: They still had some hope that there was some treatment, and Colin was with him when he got the news from the surgeon that this was it.

COLIN: "We've tried as much as we can in terms of chemotherapy. We tried the experimental drug, and looking at it right now, I'm sorry to tell you, Mr. Anderson, there's nothing more that we can do for you."

TAMARA STANNERS: After four weeks in the hospital, Tom moves to a hospice. Colin visits Tom every day. He puts socks on his feet when he's cold, he feeds him, and just keeps him company.

COLIN: We spent a lot of time watching sports. I watched more baseball in that six weeks with Tom than I've ever watched in my life. Tom mocked me at my lack of knowledge about it, he would still laugh.

TAMARA STANNERS: This is some audio Colin recorded at Tom's hospice.

COLIN: Do you want to continue with the soup or do you want to move on to pudding now?

TAMARA STANNERS: Tom isn't the kind of guy who'll give you a hug when you see him, even if it's been a long time, but that changed a bit. Colin remembers one particular moment at the hospice that was especially powerful.

COLIN: I was sleeping on the fold-out couch in Tom's room at the foot of his bed, yeah. At like four in the morning, no lights on, and he was coughing and coughing and coughing, so I got up to sit him up a little bit, just give him a little bit of juice, and there was just this flicker where our eyes met. Even in the darkness, we could see that each other was looking at one another, and it only lasted for maybe two seconds, but I'll probably never ever forget it. At that moment, I felt like this is what a parent must feel looking at their child in the middle of the night. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I've ever had.

TAMARA STANNERS: Colin spends five days straight at the hospice. He wants to give Tom some space and let him visit with a few other people who have come to see him, so Colin goes home. Then, about a week later ...

COLIN: I got up at 8:00 a.m., and then 8:45, his sister-in-law called. She was calling to tell me that Tom had gone away. Tom died on Friday, August 5th at 8:30 in the morning. Saturday afternoon, I was here at home, and I remember specifically thinking, "I feel good, I feel rested, I feel relaxed. I know there's a lot more, but I feel at peace." Then my phone rang and it was somebody who I don't know calling to tell me that my father had passed away. My father had passed away the same day as Tom and he had passed away at 7:30 that evening. I didn't know my father was sick. He had been in hospital for six weeks, the same as Tom. He had died on the same day as Tom.

My father had remarried and he had been married to his wife for 30 years, and I had never met her. I didn't know any of his new family or anything like that. When he got sick, his step-daughter asked, "Do you want me to contact your children?" He said, no, that he didn't want us to be contacted. He felt that we didn't care. It was shocking and the realization that here I was, I got to walk a stranger home in their most intimate time and be there at kind of the one thing that we all as human beings on this planet go through, and yet I wasn't able to be there for my own father. Yeah, my father was a stranger, and this stranger, Tom, wasn't the stranger.

TAMARA STANNERS: That's it for Relate for this week. Next week, we're diving into empathy. What does it take to see the world through someone else's eyes, to really understand their experience? How can empathy improve your life, your relationships, and your business? In the meantime, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Google Play. For more articles on connecting to your customers in deeper ways, visit relate.zendesk.com. To find out how Zendesk can simplify your customer interactions, head over to zendesk.com for a free trial. Talk to you soon.

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