Strangers, but not that strange

Ankit Shah is the kind of person who asks, “How are you?” and means it. If you say “good,” he’ll ask why. He doesn’t want to know what you do for a living, but how and why you do it. Ankit’s curiosity extends to everyone he talks to. Even strangers. In fact, he’s met over a thousand strangers since founding Tea With Strangers in the spring of 2013. Though some might peg Tea With Strangers as an organization, Ankit prefers to call it a movement. The idea is simple: a website that allows people to sign up to get tea with five strangers, one of whom is a “host” that gently guides the conversation.

Eager to hear more from the mind behind Tea With Strangers, I met up with Ankit at a San Francisco café in July. He couldn’t help but ask the barista a few friendly questions as we stood in line waiting for our drinks. “I like those micro interactions,” he told me. “Because they’re unassuming. Unexpected. You can visibly see the refreshment that comes over people’s faces.”

Tea With Strangers grew out of Ankit’s frustration with how hard it can be to have meaningful conversations with new people. “To want to get to know somebody is seen as unusual,” he said, genuinely confused and annoyed. Two months before graduating from college, Ankit couldn’t stop thinking about all the people he still wanted to meet, all the conversations he still wanted to have.

When he finally landed on the idea for Tea With Strangers, he had a “scrappy” version of the website up and running within seven hours. “I like to think of this experiment as a personalized, non-gender-specific, non-sexualized Tinder,” he wrote on the site. “Except I swiped right on everybody.” Ankit thought that no more than ten people would sign up. He wasn’t at all trying to grow a movement, and he certainly never imagined it would become the nation-wide organization it is today.

“In a word, tea time is a space,” Ankit said. “It’s not like we have a physical shop. But it really is a space that’s created—a space that commands attentiveness, listening, and gives rise to beautiful conversations.”

The seed of a movement

The first person to ever sign up for Tea With Strangers was a very shy girl that Ankit would probably never have otherwise met. She opened up about her simultaneous love for musical theater and fear for the stage. After that tea time, she sent Ankit a 1,500 word email about what she wished she’d said. “It was so beautiful,” Ankit said. Her openness was for him a “reminder of the humanity that surrounds us.” It inspired him to invite more people to Tea With Strangers.

“I should let this girl know that she was the seed of a movement,” he said. “That’s pretty dope.”

At first, all tea times were one-on-ones with Ankit. Students signed up for 30-minute slots between 8 and 11pm. But they didn’t remain one-on-one for long because no one ever wanted to leave. By the end of the night, there would often be five people sitting around the table with Ankit. Group tea times became a regular occurrence and, eventually, the core of Tea With Strangers.

Scaling up

When Ankit graduated and moved from Philadelphia to Menlo Park, he decided to take Tea With Strangers with him. But his own imagination stood in the way of the movement’s growth. “I started realizing that I had two opposing goals,” he said. “I wanted it to grow as much as possible, and I didn’t want anybody doing anything that I wouldn’t do.”

For a while, Ankit thought that he was the only one who could host tea times well, and the idea of letting other people do his job terrified him. He made it easy for people to apply to become Tea With Strangers hosts, but he found himself rejecting every single applicant. “I was saying no to everybody because I just didn’t want anybody else to host. I thought it was my baby,” he said. He had to open it up to others if he wanted it to grow.

And so, Ankit began recruiting hosts from people that went to his tea times in San Francisco. “I can get 1,001 people to be hosts because everyone wants to meet new people and everyone wants that sense of authority you get from being the host. However, I’m looking for people who don’t give a shit about feeling awesome and just want to do something good.”

A formula or template would simplify the task of scaling Tea With Strangers, but such a cookie cutter approach would also undermine what the movement stands for. People come to Tea With Strangers looking for surprise, novelty, an escape from the stale predictability of the daily grind. Different hosts have different styles. Some skip introductions altogether, while others ask unique questions like, “What’s the oldest photo on your phone, and what’s the story behind it?”

Experiencing tea time for myself

On a Saturday afternoon in July, I walked into an San Francisco coffee house and sat down with four people I’d never met before. I was running late and a bit uncertain of what to expect from this two-hour tea time. Ankit was our host. He cracked jokes to break the ice and wore a warm, wide smile.

Ankit is a conversational conductor, and the entire Tea With Strangers experience is masterfully orchestrated. From the outside, it looks effortless. But Ankit pays close attention to the design of the space: the shape of the table (always round, never square), the distance from other people (close enough to feel safe, far enough to feel private), the number of people (no less than three, no more than six), his body language (he’ll lean in when he wants to subtly prompt people to say more), and the time of day (during the day, people are happier and more carefree; at night, they’re far more open, intense, emotional). After hosting hundreds of tea times, he’s developed a keen sense for what makes conversation interesting and what makes it painfully awkward.

At Ankit’s request, the strangers at my table introduced themselves. They were all twenty-somethings—a software engineer, a political philosopher, an expert cryptographer who claimed she could hack our phones if she wanted to. Ankit sat back in silence for a moment before asking a question that was both unassuming and very revealing: “What’s the most difficult decision you’ve made recently, and how did you go about making it?” I talked about the gap year I almost took and why I didn’t go and why I wish I had. The others told stories of deciding to travel, leaving a secure job, breaking up with a boyfriend. One stranger even took a break from school to discover what he would do if there were “literally no outside forces pushing him toward certain actions or tasks.”

Ankit didn’t have to ask many more questions. The conversation sped forward, propelled by the fuel of interesting stories and ideas and hopes and plans. After two hours, Ankit thanked us all for coming and wrapped up the conversation with a simple question: “What are you thinking about right now?”

No strings attached friendship

Tea With strangers isn’t about networking. It’s not even about making friends. “What I think of when I think of people wanting tea time,” Ankit said, “is people wanting humanity. They want to explore a random assortment of people who have been accounted for in the census. How cool is that?”

There’s something special about the fact that four strangers carved time out of their busy lives to sit down with me. In a way, it’s easier to be open with people you don’t know. They’re not tied to your past in any way. Nor will you see them again in the future. The conversation at Tea With Strangers lives on an island of time, disconnected from most everything else in your life. “It’s like an alternate reality. A new world,” Ankit said. “When do you ever get to experience no strings attached friendship?”

Like dropping acid or drinking alcohol, tea time allows people to feel a little more uninhibited. “Everyone has stories. Even the person that seems like they’re on autopilot. There’s even a story behind why they’re autopilot,” Ankit said. He has witnessed the entire spectrum of human emotions at Tea With Strangers. People have burst into tears, argued, laughed, and thought deeply about their greatest regrets in life.

Most people convert only a tiny fraction of their thoughts into speech. Ankit recognizes that every sentence is like a box that needs opening, and he unpacks each sentence to reveal what’s inside. At any given point in a conversation, you’re only two or three questions away from figuring out what makes someone tick. Rarely do people bother to ask.

Ankit doesn’t often use the same question more than once. “Asking questions isn’t about getting answers,” he explained. “It’s about creating the space to make certain topics okay.” Ankit doesn’t pick questions out of a hat or look for them online. Instead, he “reverse-engineers” them from something he’s thinking about. To him, the best questions are the ones that are relevant to what’s going on in your life. He doesn’t want Tea With Strangers to feel formulaic. “The second it stops being organic, it feels like it’s calculated. And then you can start making robots to do this shit.”

A militia of kind people

Ankit once told me that Alexander the Great is one of his favorite historical figures. “His conquest is a fascinating topic,” he said, “the dude changed the world … because he would go to such ridiculous ends to achieve his goals.” Perhaps Ankit’s fascination with Alexander isn’t all that surprising. Though Ankit doesn’t plan on leading an army into battle, he does think of Tea With Strangers as a growing militia of good people that will one day conquer the world with random acts of kindness and meaningful conversation.

Tea With Strangers has since experimented with other formats like Stranger Happy Hour—a gathering of over forty strangers in one cramped, friendly room. The heart of the movement, however, has stayed the same. “The way I see my work manifesting itself is in opening up other people’s perspectives,” he said. “What if being nice to people were cool? That’s what Tea With Strangers is about. And part of making it cool is making it easy—more accessible.”