Cover art for Will Buckingham's Hello, Stranger

042 | Will Buckingham | Leave the door ajar for strangers...

Xenophobia lurks in all of us. But so does philoxenia, that peculiar curiosity and desire to connect when we meet a stranger. What if we cultivated it?

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

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Will Buckingham gave me my new favourite word. He's a philosopher so it's only right the word should be Greek. Philoxenia it is. Love of the foreign. It's that sense of curiosity, desire to connect and good will that make us seek out those we don't know and invite them to share our hearth. It's the cat that runs up to a house guest to smell his hand and rub against new legs. But we fear the stranger too as much as we wish for him. The cat hisses, scratches and hides under the sofa. You know that word – xenophobia.

In this episode

Will Buckingham explores what the stranger means to us and why philoxenia is worth cultivating. In this episode:
🤝 home is a social network
💪 stranger danger is male danger
🏡  safety at home, danger abroad is a false story
👀 how busy-buddy neighbours keep us safe
👥 sorry introverts: you'll never be rid of strangers
Also backpacking in Pakistan, slow Ubers in Bangalore, Manggarai villages in Indonesia, a vicarage in Norfolk, a foggy morning in Prague, a Lithuanian philosopher called Emmanuel Levinas and paper-thin walls in Paris.

Listen on the web | Listen on Apple Podcasts | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Youtube

Show notes

[00:02:38] "You can think about home as a set of social network of belongings"
[00:08:48] "I'll never again be lost in a foreign city"
[00:11:49] "A split between the safety of the home and the risk of the outside"
[00:15:15] Philoxenia vs xenophobia
[00:18:31] "That notion of the inviolable home is quite culturally specific"
[00:22:25] "Somebody would end up putting me up"
[00:24:35] "There's always going to be somebody rocking up to break up your solitude"
[00:28:39] Become a Borderline member
[00:29:57] "Concentric circles of how we imagine belonging"
[00:31:41] "The stranger brings me more than I can contain"
[00:32:57] "An inconvenience worth having"
[00:34:57] "Fear in the face of strangers is not wholly unreasonable"
[00:39:50] Outro

📚 Hello, Stranger: How We Find Connection in a Disconnected World, by Will Buckingham. Granta. 2021. Buy it here.
📬 Sign up for Will's monthly newsletter
🐦 Follow Will on Twitter @willbuckingham


Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

[00:00:00] Will Buckingham: There's what the Greeks called philoxenia, which is literally the friendship with the stranger, the desire to connect with that which is strange or different or new to us. And on the other side there's xenophobia, which is that fear of what is strange or new to us.

[00:00:16] Isabelle Roughol: Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline.

[00:00:30] I'm getting on a plane today. In fact, I'm rushing to record this and finish this episode before I rush to the airport. It is the first time in nearly two years I'm traveling internationally on a plane. I'm so excited. I'll be going to an airport, bumping into strangers, you can't tell, but I'm closing my eyes and picturing it right now. It is for me the first real signal that something like a normal life might exist again.

[00:00:57] In the months of lockdown and also the muted, toned down life in between, the thing that I missed most, and I was finally able to identify, was novelty. It was walking streets that I didn't already know by heart, meeting people that I hadn't already met. Your circle shrunk to the nearest and the dearest that you were allowed to see, each bubble a planet of its own and strangers and strange things completely disappeared from our life. There was suddenly nothing new to expect and in fact, nothing unexpected. And that's what made life so repetitive for a lot of us, those of us who were privileged and lucky enough to not experience tragedy, but simply intense boredom.

[00:01:45] I'm speaking today with someone who has thought about this a lot, not in the context of the pandemic, but much more broadly about the role of strangers in our lives and of the unexpected. Will Buckingham is a regular listener of this podcast. Hello, Will. He is a bit of a Renaissance man, an anthropologist, a philosopher, a writer, and all around creative. He just published Hello Stranger with Granta. The book starts in tragedy with Will trying to reconnect with life amid intense grief after his partner, Elee, passed from cancer. But it's really a celebration of life, of chance encounters and of the roles that we each play in one another's life, however passing we may be. We don't just pass viruses to one another when we connect. Here's my lovely conversation with Will Buckingham.

[00:02:38] "You can think about home as a set of social network of belongings"

[00:02:38] Isabelle Roughol: I start many of my interviews, asking people a question that I like, which is, "where is home" or "what is home to you?" And I feel like you're the culmination of all these questions, because you literally start with an entire chapter on what is home. So how would you answer that now?

[00:03:01] Will Buckingham: That is an interesting question and it's definitely lots of places. So when I was writing the book, Hello Stranger, I was thinking about places I feel at home. And actually in cities, I tend to be pretty much a city dweller, even though it was brought up in small town Norfolk in the UK, but particularly in cities where I think there's a multiplicity of ways of belonging, which I always find is one of the draws of a city. You can belong to a city in different ways.

[00:03:34] So there's lots of, there's lots of cities where I feel at home and my current base is in Sofia, Bulgaria, and see it certainly as somewhere I'm at home and somewhere that is home at the moment. But they're also all kinds of other places where I feel quite deeply at home. Leicester, for example, where I was before I was in Bulgaria. Um, I spent quite a lot of time in Yangon, in Chengdu and various other places. all of those places, when I rock up there after an absence, there's a sense of to some extent coming home.

[00:04:14] Isabelle Roughol: Um, so it is very much possible in your mind to have multiple homes, to feel at home in a lot of different places.

[00:04:20] Will Buckingham: I think so. I mean, it complicated when you have to tussle with bureaucracy. And you probably know yourself, bureaucracy is not massively imaginative. So you have to have one place that is home identity has to be single and all of those other things. So, I mean, from a bureaucratic point of view, home is sister's house in the UK, where I've never lived. Because, because she opens my mail and, know, WhatsApps me anything interesting. And bureaucratically that's my home. But I think in terms of sort of broader human belonging, I mean, it really is, it really is multiple.

[00:05:03] Isabelle Roughol: Um. That kind of gets to the, what is home, how we define home very early on. I mean, you talk in your book about, you go back to the ancient Greeks, right? Because you're a philosopher and as such, there's a lot of, there's a lot of philosophy in But that concept of home, it kind of starts, as soon as humanity starts, doesn't it?

[00:05:23] Will Buckingham: I think so. And there's different ways you can think about home. So you can think about home as a, as a space and as a territory, if you like. But you can also think about home as a set of social networks of belonging. And I think that the latter sense of home is something that goes very, very deep at all.

[00:05:52] I mean, for example, within more nomadic communities in both past and present, may be more defined by those enduring social connections perhaps the particular lines of flight or routes that you take through the world rather than belonging to a particular single geography territory.

[00:06:18] So I think that sense of belonging and home as belonging is something that is... and belonging as being social is something that goes back to very, very earliest human times.

[00:06:30] Isabelle Roughol: That's interesting for the modern immigrant, the modern nomad, because for a long time, when you left, you left forever and those social connections were severed, were broken just by virtue of distance, right? So that kind of multiple homes, multiple belonging, like you and I have, is a pretty recent phenomenon, isn't it? Because it just was impossible before technically.

[00:06:54] Will Buckingham: I think it is, it is relatively recent. I mean, there's some examples say I include a bit of Chinese poetry in the book this sense of connections that endure over a distance which is very strongly a part of the Chinese poetic tradition, and and parting poems and sense of saying farewell to people and then people being a long way away and actually never having a sense of when you're going to see them again. But there is a sense of enduring connections still, even, you know, pre all of these tools we have today to keep in touch. And obviously letters and things could still be sent in the quite distant past.

[00:07:42] So there are those threads of connections still, but I think it's much easier to maintain obviously those kinds of belonging now, because of the ways we can, you know, in different countries, we can chat face to face, like we're doing now.

[00:07:59] And that's a relatively new thing. I mean, in the early nineties, I talk a lot about being in Pakistan in the early nineties and traveling as a incredibly naive teenager and experiencing what was the most astonishing hospitality and actually the effect that's had on me when I was incredibly vulnerable and utterly out of my depth to be honest in small towns in Pakistan. And back then, it was really quite hard to keep in touch with people back home. I might go to a post office and pick out the pile of mail, poste restante, some of which had been sent two months ago. and then that would be the only communication I had for another weeks or something until I got to the next post office got them to rummage for this next pile of mail.

[00:08:48] "I'll never again be lost in a foreign city"

[00:08:48] Isabelle Roughol: Hmm. There's a poetry to this, to this kind of traveling that I think we've, uh, we've lost in a way. I remember being in an Uber in Bangalore a few years ago. And, uh, I wasn't quite sure where my driver was taking me or I wanted to check, you know, that, uh, that we were on the right path, and that I wasn't being taken for a ride. I opened my phone and opened the map and kind of spotted where I was and where I was going. And I just had this moment of "wow, you know, technology is amazing. I'll never again be lost in a foreign city." And then I had this deep sadness, all of a sudden: "wow, I'll never again be lost in a foreign city."

[00:09:27] Will Buckingham: I think, I think that is absolutely true. That sense of quite sort of deep estrangement or being lost is not something that's so easy to come by. Um, and it's something that I do remember I relished and I still... A few years ago, I went to a conference in Prague. I kept my phone switched off and I turned up there. I into where I was staying. And the day after I just went for a stroll in the morning, conference was starting that evening, sat on a bench and it was very foggy and it kind of looked like Franz Kafka was about to loom out of the mist. It was that kind of Prague weather. And I realized that nobody there knew me and nobody knew where I was and an incredible sense of, um, I think just the joy of being alone actually, and the joy of being somewhere where I was quite unconnected. And that was quite interesting. But I also knew I could turn my phone on and then suddenly, you know, the texts and the other messages would come in.

[00:10:33] Isabelle Roughol: You mentioned your time in Yangon. You were also in Pakistan as a young man for a little while. And I have to say when I was reading those passages, I was a bit jealous because it is a way of being in the world that is, um, privileged, I mean, that word is overused. But, you know, I was thinking about how I am in the world and how you know, that kind of traveling, I've done a bit of it in my early twenties and, as many wonderful memories as I have had, I also had some really scary experiences with strangers. And that has made me pull back, um, and not travel in the same way that I used to.

[00:11:18] And so part of me, you know, reading your book was thinking about, who has the opportunity, who has the privilege of that connection with strangers and the richness that comes from it. Because there's also danger in it and there's danger in it for everyone, but for some more than others. And in fact, traditionally it was mostly men traveling on their own and going on these, on these kinds of adventures while women are more rooted to the home and to the safety associated with the home.

[00:11:46] How do you, I don't know if there's a question there, but how do you think that?

[00:11:49] "a split between the safety of the home and the risk of the outside"

[00:11:49] Will Buckingham: Now is a, I think it's a really interesting, um, it's a really interesting question.

[00:11:54] And the first thing to say, I mean, talking about gender and the first thing to say about gender is actually, and that's something I do talk about in the book, A lot of our concerns about strangers in general, when you boil them down, they're concerns about male strangers. Because however you identify gender-wise, it is actually male strangers who are the greatest risk.

[00:12:21] Babies know this. You know, babies will be more spooked out by male strangers than by women strangers. Also that's the same elsewhere in the animal kingdom. You know, with other primates, their risk comes from adult males, generally, more so than the adult females.

[00:12:44] And so the first thing to say about those gender dynamics is that's really where the risk lies. And it's something that I think we don't necessarily give enough attention to. I mean, we don't generally give enough attention to the fact that men tend to be a greater risk than women and that gender is a factor in terms of people's capacity, particularly say for violence. So that's one of the things we're afraid about when we're talking about strangers. So that's the first thing.

[00:13:27] I think the, the second thing is there may be, and I was talking to my editor about this when we were writing the book and the data is sort of interesting on this, but there may be more of a split between the safety of the home and the risk of the outside if you are male or male-identifying, if you are female or female-identifying. So we all know that actually, despite the notion of home as a place of safety, that for many women, it's not. At all. And that's more the case for women than men. So in a sense, risk is more evenly distributed, I think, if you're a woman than if you're a man.

[00:14:25] There's a sense in which if you're a man and you're at home, you're safer, and if you're outside, you're less safe. And the main threat to men in the outside world is obviously other men. But if you're a woman, the figures suggests that the threat is more evenly distributed between inside and outside.

[00:14:48] So that's one thing and that's a whole complex set of questions and we're all of us, depending on gender, class, race, all kinds of other things, vulnerable in different ways and in different circumstances as well. So there's the question of what we do about that vulnerability, if we're making those decisions.

[00:15:15] Philoxenia vs xenophobia

[00:15:15] Will Buckingham: And the thing that the book is really interested in, and I was really interested in the book, was the tension between that response towards strangers where we're curious and interested and want to find out more and want to connect, that response to strangers where we're afraid and we're wanting to close down any sense of connection and to withdraw.

[00:15:44] And on the one hand, there's what the Greeks called philoxenia, which is literally the friendship with the stranger, the xenos, friendship, the desire to connect with that which is strange or different or new to us. And on the other other side there's xenophobia, which is that fear of what is strange or new to us. And it strikes me that both of those responses are very much inbuilt.

[00:16:14] I mean, a cat, you know, a cat does the same thing. When somebody comes to visit you and the cat sees somebody new, they may be a little bit curious, but they may also hide behind the sofa. So hiding behind the sofa xenophobia, is fear of the stranger, but sticking your head out and just kind of them out and to connect and find out how they work, that's philoxenia.

[00:16:41] And both of those responses have to do quite deeply with safety. So the idea often is that the more we close down towards strangers, the safer we become. But I think that's not, that's probably not true for any of us. And there is safety in withdrawal in certain circumstances, but there's also safety and greater security in connecting.

[00:17:06] And so what, one of the things I think is interesting just as I finish this thought, um, and I was talking to somebody at a book festival I was doing last week, the writer Lee Randall, and we were talking about being on the train. And if somebody, as a woman being on the train, some strange man sits down opposite you and starts behaving strangely, you might move to another carriage. But another strategy of responding to that is to connect with other people in the carriage to start building some kind of sense of social safety through connection that can offset that sense of risk.

[00:17:50] So I think that that conundrum of connect or disconnect and how to manage your relationships with strangers through withdrawing or going towards them is one of the ways for all of us that we manage questions of safety because we're all vulnerable in different ways. there are particular issues and concerns as a woman but um, as an 18 year old kid in Pakistan, there were all kinds of interesting vulnerabilities there as well, I think.

[00:18:20] Isabelle Roughol: Absolutely.

[00:18:22] Will Buckingham: We might, we might come back in a bit to questions of how that plays out in households as well, because... I'll say something now, I'll say something now.

[00:18:31] Isabelle Roughol: Please.

[00:18:31] "That notion of the inviolable home is quite culturally specific"

[00:18:31] Isabelle Roughol: Please.

[00:18:32] Will Buckingham: So I think also one of the interesting things I was so interested in the book was the east Indonesian, Manggarai households, which are very porous and the sense of a household where, um... so this is in Flores in Indonesia, and the houses are made of bamboo slats or were until relatively recently, opened to the world. People would wander in, could wander out. Cooking smells come in and out. Smoke seeps through the walls. You can call out to people, I love this, in the next door house, and you can say "sleep well" to the people in the next door house, which is great.

[00:19:12] And there's this sense that through living in that kind of more porous way, there is, um, a kind of protective social heat. The Indonesian word is ramai which is kind of bustling heat and social heat and fun and cracking jokes together and that kind of thing. And that porosity is something that sustains that.

[00:19:43] And I wonder whether also that one of the problems in terms of how we live now is that without that porosity, that also makes the home less safe. So if you have that sense of broader social connection that doesn't stop at boundaries of the home, then does open up the possibility of the home becoming a site of violence, if you like. But if you have that coming and going and that broader sense of social connection, then there are other forces to, to offset that.

[00:20:23] Isabelle Roughol: You don't end up isolated in your home from, from the community.

[00:20:28] It really is a very cultural thing because, you know, I kind of had the same experience living in a studio in Paris with paper thin walls, hear the neighbors. Uh, I could hear the neighbor's phone on vibrate, you know, and that could be, "oh, community. You've got a friend across, across the wall really," but often it felt like an invasion. Like there was no, there was no privacy. There was no intimacy, you know, within that, again going back to that sacred sense of that inviolable home, that place that is yours and where you are protected from strangers, from the state, from, you know, anyone who would try to reach in.

[00:21:09] Will Buckingham: But I think that notion of the inviolable home is quite culturally specific. So.

[00:21:18] Isabelle Roughol: I'm very Western is what you're saying.

[00:21:20] I mean, possibly. It doesn't, it doesn't

[00:21:22] Will Buckingham: sound like a Manggarai home and it doesn't sound like the homes I stayed further east in the Tanimbar islands in Indonesia whilst doing field work.

[00:21:32] But it also doesn't sound particularly like the home I grew up in, which was a vicarage. My father was a local priest. Um, and this was a building that was, it wasn't owned by us. So it was owned by the church. And it was a place that was also a workplace, a place where people came to meet and do things. And there were always people coming and going. And it didn't feel like we were, I think as I say in the book, we didn't have sole claim on the place. So my own sense of home has always been as something that is a bit more porous. And I'm not sure that inviolable sacred spaces ultimately are the things that make us, um, that make us safer actually.

[00:22:25] "Somebody would end up putting me up"

[00:22:25] Isabelle Roughol: Yeah. Yeah. And I do love this idea of, of connection as the thing that keeps you safe rather, and this idea, going back to earlier days of traveling, when we didn't have the technology and infrastructure that we have now, so really the only way to travel is to rely on the kindness of strangers who open their homes

[00:22:46] along the way, right, as you, as you progress in the world.

[00:22:50] Will Buckingham: Yeah, absolutely. Again, when I was back in Pakistan in the early nineties, very often that was how I, I had to travel. I, I was in all kinds of places I shouldn't have been.

[00:23:03] And people tended to sort of see me as somebody who was clearly vulnerable, exposed, in need of protection, but also somebody for whom they felt responsible. So quite often I would go somewhere, somebody would end up putting me up and would phone their second cousin in the next place I was going to, and I would then take the bus and they would meet me off the bus. So, from that point of view, I think, um, I entered into those sort of networks of connection and felt, felt a little bit safer myself. But there was also something just exhilarating about turning up somewhere and just having no idea where you're going to stay or what encounters you're going to have. And as you say, there was a kind of privilege to that exhilaration.

[00:23:54] Isabelle Roughol: But it is something that everyone, or every culture at least, experiences and in fact has rituals for, which you describe. Um, rituals for how you welcome a stranger in, how you open your door, what the rules are for the, for the hosts and for the guests. And there are, it seems connections across every human culture of, you know, sharing food and drinks, laying down your weapons, phrases that you say, things that I recognize in French culture and that you describe in cultures in Pakistan and in, all over the world really, Mongolia and, um... We connect in that and that we, you know, we can all recognize what it is to welcome a stranger to your home.

[00:24:35] "There's always going to be somebody rocking up to break up your solitude"

[00:24:35] Will Buckingham: Yeah. And I think that's the, that thing of welcoming other strangers into your own world or your own home is the other side, because it's easy to think... A lot of the book is about or draws on my travels elsewhere. But it's easy to think from that, that strangers are people you have to go elsewhere to meet. But one of the things I think is really interesting is that when it comes down to it, pretty much most of the eight point whatever billion people on the planet are strangers.

[00:25:15] So you don't have to go anywhere there. The problem of dealing with strangers is a problem you're going to run into sooner or later. If you're in a city it's a problem that you run into every time you take the subway or walk down the streets. Even if you live up some, you know, remote mountainside, some hermit existence, there's always going to be somebody rocking up who's going to kind of break with your, your solitude and nice little world you built up and cause you all kinds of problems. So the issue of, um, dealing with strangers really does fail a fundamental human one. And it's not something, you can't get rid of strangers.

[00:25:58] And I think that's one of the things that I was most interested in, in writing the book because there is an idea, there is an idea in popular culture, that somehow certain groups of people are strangers and you keep those people at bay, and then everybody else gets on with their life and everybody is in place and everybody stays in their right place and the world will be wonderful and harmonious.

[00:26:24] But that's not, that's not how we work. And even those people who are not designated as strangers, you know, there are people we don't know, there are people we don't have any idea of what's going on in their head or what they get up to. Cause strangers are everywhere and we can't, we can't avoid running into them. And so this brings in, as you say, the idea of ritual as something that is a way of managing those, particularly those first encounters but not just that, also sustaining, I think connections through time.

[00:27:00] And it's something that does seem to me to be universal, except the rituals are very different in different places. So in the book, I talk a lot about Mongolian rituals and I was on the grasslands of Mongolia. There used to be very strict oral codes of how you relate to your host or how you relate to your guests to ensure everybody's safety. But even in the UK, where I'm originally from, rituals like how you knock on the door, offering cups of tea, are incredibly deep-rooted.

[00:27:40] And if somebody comes to visit you and you offer them a cup of tea if you're British, and they come in and they say, "no, thanks." You think that's a bit strange. So you offer them coffee because that's kind of okay. And they say, no, thanks. You offer them water. They say, "no, thanks." They just sit there without a drink. Um, that is weirdly unsettling. And it's weirdly unsettling because I think the purpose of the ritual is really to build connections, rather than to suage thirst. And if somebody is not playing that game, then we don't quite know how to deal with them. So those, those sort of subtle dances of ritual, I think, are really incredibly fascinating. But they're something we do very naturally and something that is an incredibly important part of building trust with strangers.

[00:28:38] Isabelle Roughol: We'll be right back.

[00:28:39] Membership ad

[00:28:39] Isabelle Roughol: Hey, this is Isabelle. I don't know if you're as much of a podcast addict as I am, but I've been listening to them for 15 years and I listen to several every day. And if you pay attention, like I do now, to how they're made, it's fascinating. I love listening to the credits. And if you take a show like The Daily from The New York Times, they spend like two minutes just reading the names of the people who are involved and they just keep getting longer and longer. That's the amount of work that goes into making a podcast. But you know what? Borderline is made by one person. That's it. That's just me. I record, I produce, I interview, I read the books, I talk with people, I edit, I do the social media, the visuals, the distribution, the business side, everything, the newsletter... Everything is done by me.

[00:29:31] So that's more than full-time work. And to support this, I'm inviting you to become a member of Borderline. You can join at If Borderline is even a little bit as meaningful to you as it is to me, becoming a member is the best way that you can keep it going and growing. So go to borderline Thank you so much.

[00:29:55] And now let's get back to our episode.

[00:29:57] "Concentric circles of how we imagine belonging"

[00:29:57] Isabelle Roughol: You were talking about, you can't avoid the stranger and who is a stranger to us? Um, one thing that the brought up for me is actually who is a stranger is very much dependent on your context, right? So, if I'm going around London, someone who's from Crouch End, which is where I am, somehow feels more like kin than some other Londoner. But if I'm traveling around the world, you don't even need to be French, pretty much anyone who's European feels like less of a stranger. So we find a way somehow wherever we are, whatever context we are, to divide the world between the strangers and the slightly less strangers that we have something, however mythical, however imagined in common with.

[00:30:41] Will Buckingham: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there are there also kind of concentric circles: There's those really close to us and those who we feel we have enduring connections with, and there's people who we, we kind of imagine are quite like us. And then we get to know them, we find out that not at all, and that causes all kinds of disappointment or hilarity or whatever. And then there are people who we imagine are not like us and occasionally you discover that they're more like you than you think, um, once you start connecting. But we do I think have those concentric circles of how we imagine, how we imagine belonging. I don't think it's a thing you can necessarily eradicate. I don't think it's a necessarily bad thing, but I think it's, um, it's always worth recognizing that those, those sketch maps of humanity are provisional and almost certainly wrong.

[00:31:41] "The stranger brings me more than I can contain"

[00:31:41] Isabelle Roughol: But, but there is something to finding something that you share with the, with the stranger that you meet that makes them a less of a stranger. There is something wonderful that the stranger brings, not just connection, but news from the outside, right? The, the stranger is the one that connects you not just to themselves, but to everyone else that they've met before, right, and just continues that, that... I mean, it used to be that's how news spread right before we had the kind of media that we have today.

[00:32:08] Will Buckingham: There's a, so I did my PhD way back in philosophy on Emmanuel Levinas, the Lithuanian French philosopher. And Levinas is obsessed by this idea of the stranger. And it's at the center of his quite complicated approach to ethics and the ethics of responsibility. But he says somewhere that the stranger brings me more than I can contain. And I love, I love that idea and the idea that there's something in those encounters, which is more than you can contain. It's more than you can encompass in your view of the world. And therefore you have to to some extent let that, your own sort of view of the world and your own mastery of the world, slacken a bit,

[00:32:57] "an inconvenience worth having"

[00:32:57] Will Buckingham: because there's something new here, something unexpected and something...

[00:33:03] He talks about it also as the stranger brings, brings us the future because they're possibilities that we couldn't possibly imagine. And those may not always be good, but who wants to be trapped in the future only of the possibilities they themselves could imagine? That would be, that would be a kind of hell, I think. So we also need strangers, I think, because, because of that newness they bring.

[00:33:28] Isabelle Roughol: And that, and that openness that discovery that, that you get from meeting strangers. I think one of the more valuable experiences I had as a kid and as a teenager, as a young woman, was we brought foreign exchange students into our home. So I was one myself in the US but we also had many through the years stay with our family. There was something incredibly awkward at first, literally integrating a perfect stranger into your family life, um, but incredibly enriching as well.

[00:34:04] Will Buckingham: Yeah. I mean, it's also often incredibly inconvenient and again, that's something that I was interested in looking at in the book is the way thatactually it's quite disruptive. It's quite inconvenient, potentially full of risks, but usually if things work out well, it's an inconvenience worth having, I think.

[00:34:31] Isabelle Roughol: Yeah. I mean, growth only comes from discomfort, right? I think...

[00:34:37] Will Buckingham: I I think it's one of the places it comes from.

[00:34:39] Isabelle Roughol: One of the places

[00:34:41] Will Buckingham: I'd have about that for a lot longer to think whether it only comes from discomfort, it's definitely one of the places. Yeah.

[00:34:46] Isabelle Roughol: That was, that was definitely a bit of a, of a, uh, a categorical statement. I'm not I believe it it certainly is one of the places that I, that it comes from.

[00:34:57] "Fear in the face of strangers is not wholly unreasonable"

[00:34:57] Isabelle Roughol: To kind of wrap up this conversation. I was curious if you could chat about why decide to tackle this topic now, why write this book now about the value of strangers

[00:35:09] Will Buckingham: I think the most obvious reason is that the, there's quite a strong cultural fear particularly in the UK of the idea of strangers and strangers as only offering risk and threatening to make our, our world worse. If we, you know, if we invite them in and to me, that seems an enormous missed opportunity and all the evidence seems to be that, that is an enormous missed opportunity, but also in that sense that strangers present us with risk and danger and, could disrupt our world in ways that we fear is not a wholly unreasonable one either. So I was interested by thinking through this idea of what it means for us as human beings to encounter people we don't know and to experience that sense of vulnerability in the face of people we don't know.

[00:36:21] And what what's going on in that for example, what's going on in that politics of unwelcome, if you like, which is to some extent, quite, quite widespread. And the opposite of that is often the slightly over optimistic view that all encounters with strangers are good and that we should just welcome everybody all the time and that xenophobia is some kind of vice in need of, in need of eradication. And I think that's not plausible. And actually a sense of some kind of anxiety in the face of the unknown and in the face of people we don't know is something that is not just ineradicable but also is probably one of the things that we need to get by in the world.

[00:37:25] So what I wanted to do was give enough sort of space to that. Um, that fear we have in the face of strangers whilst also thinking about what are the other things that are going on and particularly this idea of philoxenia the idea of curiosity desire to connect fascination, which I think is no less deeply rooted than xenophobia And is the opposite forward moving rather than backward moving aspect of our, connections with strangers. And it is also like xenophobia is also born out of a desire to make our world better and safer and more secure so that we can, we can flourish. And so I was really interested by how, between those two things, we navigate the difficulties. We have as human beings, trying to get to grips with living in a world where people are incredibly mobile. where we live in cities, where a lot of the people we're surrounded by are people we don't know, and will never know. And where we run into strangers hundreds of times, thousands of times a day.

[00:38:46] So how can we think better about the complexity of those encounters to give a little more space to the responses that might help build more of a sense of belonging, connectivity, more of a sense of fun even, because I think that's really important. More of a sense of possibility and a way of looking towards building a better future, rather than just seeing this as some sort of inner radical problem that we somehow have to manage by , I don't know, battening down the hatches or alternatively, by throwing out our xenophobia altogether, which is never going to happen.

[00:39:33] Isabelle Roughol: All right. Well, thank you so much for this, this wonderful conversation. you've given me my new favorite word by the way, philoxenia. I hadn't heard it before.

[00:39:41] Will Buckingham: It's a lovely word. Isn't it? Yeah.

[00:39:44] Isabelle Roughol: It really is. I think it's going to be my new, my new motto. Thank you so much.

[00:39:48] Will Buckingham: Thank you so much, Isabelle. It's been a pleasure.

[00:39:50] Outro

[00:39:50] Isabelle Roughol: Hello Stranger is published by Granta and available in all good bookstores. You'll find a link in the show notes. Thanks to Will Buckingham for sharing it with us.

[00:40:02] Yes, I realize I said something idiotic in the interview. Kids are not on Facebook. Even I'm barely on Facebook. The best Zuck can hope for is that they're on Instagram, but really they're on TikTok. So mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

[00:40:16] I've got some news to share. I'm really excited to be going back to school, part-time and remotely so Borderline isn't going anywhere, but I've joined the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program at the Newmark School of Journalism, at CUNY City University New York. That's a very long title to say that I'm joining 20 media artisans, media entrepreneurs like myself around the world to learn, iterate on our projects and to hopefully make Borderline a lot better, a lot more sustainable so remember that you can still and always support Borderline by becoming a member at As you can see, I'm investing a lot as are other people into this project. And I really hope it means as much to you and that you want to support it as well.

[00:41:02] In the weeks and months ahead the product is certainly going to change and evolve to be something that is more attractive to a bigger number of people, still with the same philosophy and with yours truly as your host. So there will be some changes, but all for the better and with more for you. So I hope that that will be exciting for you and that you will consider supporting Borderline, again at Thank you so much to all of you who already have. And because we're hitting the one year mark, thank you so much to all of you who have renewed your yearly pledges. It means so much to me to know that not only did you believe in the idea when it first came about, but that you also continue to find value in it and to support it. So thank you so much.

[00:41:52] I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Music is by Ofshane. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production. And I'll talk to you next week.

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Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.