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  • Anna Weltner

What is the “Stranger on a Train” phenomenon?

Sometimes we share more freely with people we don’t know.  Here's how joining a Meaning Circle, a unique group experience from MeaningSphere, can help you benefit from this phenomenon. 

 

Two people stand on the platform of a train station.
Photo by Nicate Lee on Unsplash

Have you ever heard of the “Stranger on a Train” phenomenon? 


It’s an observation within psychology that we tend to share more freely with people we don’t know and might not bump into again. Psychologist Zick Rubin coined the term in his 1975 paper “Lovers and Other Strangers in which he relayed the results of an experimental study of self-disclosure between strangers at bus stops and in airport lounges.


As the paper’s title indicates, Rubin was looking for clues about how intimate relationships form. But along the way, he discovered this insight: among strangers, we can often speak about our worries or frustrations more freely, knowing it won’t be shared with those closest to us. 


Burnt out at work? This unconventional method could change everything 

Dale Walker experienced this phenomenon acutely the first time he attended a Meaning Circle ®, a guided small-group discussion devoted to meaningful work. Held twice a month over Zoom, these sessions provide a safe and supportive space for participants to explore and share their experiences, challenges, and aspirations in their professional lives. From navigating career transitions and dealing with workplace stress to finding purpose and fulfillment in your job, Meaning Circles address a wide range of topics that resonate with people looking to discover what meaningful work looks like for them. 


Now a seasoned Meaning Circle host, Dale describes his experience best himself. In the first of a two-part video series on Instagram and TikTok, he shares about the unique appeal Circles held for him personally, and the impact they have had on his approach to work. 


Screenshot of an video from social media showing a man speaking with the words, "Ever heard of the Stranger on a Train Phenomenon? What is a Meaning Circle Part 1."

“For as long as I can remember, family and friends have often told me things like, ‘We never know what you’re thinking,’ or, ‘You’re very difficult to read,’” he shares. “But at a Circle, to my surprise, I realized that sharing with others was both comfortable and cathartic, thanks to the anonymity granted by the experience.

  

Coming to Circles, sharing my experiences, and listening to others helped me get through a pattern of burnout and totally re-shape my relationship with my work.” 

Dale's story underscores the importance of finding spaces where we feel comfortable sharing our authentic selves and connecting with others who may have similar experiences. The freedom to be candid, as well as the realization that others share the same struggles, can provide a sense of relief and empowerment, giving us the courage to make positive changes in our approach to work and ultimately leading to greater job satisfaction and well-being. 


The anatomy of a Meaning Circle 

For Dale, this profound effect speaks to the “why” behind Meaning Circles: they’re a protected space in which we can speak freely and candidly about big topics related to meaningful work. 


But what about the “how?” Say you’ve signed up for a Circle and are about to click the Zoom link—what happens then? In Part 2, Dale returns to share what first-time participants can expect at a Circle. 


Screenshot of an video from social media showing a man speaking with the words, "What to expect at a Meaning Circle" and  "What is a Meaning Circle Part 2."

According to host Dale, here are the eight things first-timers should know: 


  1. Meaning Circles are small! They’re usually capped at 8 people to allow each participant time to speak.  

 

  1. We’re all equal. We introduce ourselves by first name and where we’re dialing in from—that’s it! No need for titles or status markers. 

 

  1. At each Circle, a host will pose a stimulus question for you to reflect on and respond to. For example, what is the role of play in your working life? Or, what would you tell your younger self about work?  

 

  1. You’re not compelled to share if you don’t want to. In fact, it’s completely fine if you just want to listen.  

 

  1. There’s no set order to who shares. Speak when and if you feel called to. 

 

  1. At a Circle, we speak only for ourselves. We don’t comment on what others have shared. Think of it as a self-reflection exercise, but done in a group. 

 

  1. After everyone has had a chance to speak, we’ll have another round of shares. This time, we share what we’ve learned from listening to others’ responses. 

 

  1. Lastly, the learning doesn’t come from the host—it comes from the group! Hosts are not there to impart their wisdom. They’re there to facilitate a deep exploration of the topic for everyone in the group. In this process, the host often learns just as much.

Want to try it out for yourself? View our upcoming Meaning Circles here.

 

 

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