Growing up in the shadows of a city of 8 million, one can’t help but wonder about all of the missed connections that can occur on a daily basis. Ankit Shah is a native New Yorker and the founder of Tea with Strangers, a relatively new movement that provides a refreshing approach to meeting new and exciting people. The idea is simple, yet enticing: a group of 3-5 strangers gather at a local café over a delicious cup of tea, and discover the unknown. A mélange of experiences, personalities, and ideologies flow into the air as strangers bond and possibly craft new friendships.
1. What inspired you to launch Tea with Strangers? What is its purpose?
Tea With Strangers started as an experiment when I was graduating from UPenn [University of Pennsylvania] to cross paths with folks that I wouldn't otherwise. During my senior year at UPenn, the air started to change. I spent 3.5 years there, but it was just as we were about to graduate that everyone seemingly got a lot friendlier. All of us became more approachable, I think, because we felt less attached to the associations we once held onto and more to the fact that we were leaving this place we called home. Instead of being a brother in Frat X, a dancer in Group Y or any number of other identities each of us held, we were just people that happened to be graduating together.
What became TWS started as a personal attempt to understand all that I didn't understand in the people that I'd been walking by every day for the 3.5 years prior.
Now, Tea With Strangers is all about making it easier for communities of people to connect meaningfully. That starts with tea time — a conversation between a few strangers and a host, driven by the questions, stories, and listening of everyone at the table. So we’re building a community of people that love to bring people together and we're inviting everyone to join.
2. What kind of impact do you hope it will have on NYC?
We’re on a mission to make our world smaller. Our neighborhoods more neighborly. Our friends more friendly. Our communities more communal. Our humans more human. We’re all about how we can bring people together to inspire real connections, founded first on how we express and share curiosity, empathy and generosity. We know that when we focus on having each other’s’ backs instead of worrying about who has our back, there's more than enough backs being…haved.
In NYC, we have a tendency of being colder than in other cities. We have 10 million people around us every day, and we feel lonelier than ever. There’s a ton of social opportunities available, but so many of them are time fillers. They just give you something to do. My hope is that TWS can work to make it easier for New Yorkers to feel the nudge of permission they need to just connect with one another in a real way.
3. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in its development?
Tea With Strangers is something that’s inherently meant to stay small. It’s all about the intimacy of the conversations that we bring together and how there are pretty much no strings attached. Tea times are designed for the conversations to be awesome. Anything that happens afterwards is awesome, but that’s not so much what we’re focusing on for now.
As we start to grow into new cities and make the community even a tiny bit more organized, it starts to feel more like a company with a structure, and that’s lame. Getting involved with TWS is something that should feel fun and playful, not like a responsibility, and figuring out how to make that the case while still actually growing and pursuing the mission is a challenge.
4. Is Tea with Strangers limited to a young crowd? Can anyone just sign up?
Anyone can sign up. It appeals more to millenials than anyone else, and I think that’s due to two reasons — (1) most people find out about Tea With Strangers through social media and word of mouth, which are more common modes of communication for millenials, and (2) millenials compose the generation of folks that are least exposed to good conversations, so something like this is so much more novel and appealing to them. We spend more of our time on computers, in our heads, and at large parties than we do in environments like tea time.
We crave better interactions with the people around us, but it’s scary to actually pursue them when we don’t feel like the people around us want to do so. The funny thing is that the people around us DO want more meaningful interactions. They’re just bad at showing it.
5. What do you think makes NYC a great spot for a movement such as yours?
There are 4 million people in Manhattan every day on 22 square miles of land. It’s traditionally known as a place where everyone is out for themselves, willing to step over whoever else to get what they want. That, along with a whole host of other assumptions about New York, breeds a loneliness that can make the city look a little nasty at times. Brandon and Humans of New York do a great job of inherently dismissing lots of those assumptions, and it’s so clear that we all would rather think about people as, well, people. TWS offers a clear way to remind yourself of that when ‘liking’ a photo with a raw caption might not stick as strongly.
6. What’s the most interesting conversation you’ve had at Tea with Strangers?
Admittedly, I’ve had some really good ones, so I don’t think I could characterize any conversation as ‘the most interesting,’ but my favorite tea times are the ones where I stop mid-tea thinking about how dumb I am; the ones that challenge what I think to be true.
Last Saturday, I hosted tea time with two 20-something guys and a married girl in her early 30s. We had an incredible conversation about how lots of us have a habit of characterizing specific activities and behaviors as effeminate. Even when we don’t mean to propagate certain class and gender stereotypes, our language can do it anyway. That started to transition into a conversation about who we trust, how we define trust, and the way we operate differently around people we trust in different realms of our lives to varying magnitudes. Fascinating stuff.