When arguments lead to friendships

Less than a day into TED Summit and I've had the opportunity to hear talks on a myriad of topics from the future of AI personas, to the power of ping pong diplomacy, to the transcendent power of sorrowful music. One of my favourite talks so far though, flies in the face of the rising populism across the world that would have us think that our political differences are irreconcilable barriers to friendship.

Editor of Zeit Online Jochem Wegner's TED talk described the results of an experiment among colleagues that led to 17,000 people in 19 European countries signing up for a "political argument".

Wegner's project started in his native Germany. Readers of Zeit Online were asked a series of questions on a range of political issues from their perceptions of Russia to immigration. At the end of the questionnaire they were asked, "Would you like to meet a neighbour who completely disagrees with you"?

Within weeks 12,000 readers had signed up and Wegner and his team had to hack "a dirty algorithm" to match people by closest proximity and most divergent views. A professor was matched with a student; a father-in-law with his dauther-in-law. Across the country, Germans sat down to political conversations with people who represented the complete antithesis of their own views and they joked, forged friendships and learned from new perspectives.

Wegner himself met with a hipster in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, who he later found out had been a neo-nazi as a teenager; proving people on the extreme side of politics can return to more centrist views. Only on his conversation partner's views on women, could Wegner find no common ground.

The message of the talk resonated with some research I've been doing on how to cultivate curiosity in derailed democracies. "When strangers meet to talk for hours with no one listening," says Wegner "they change."

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