Ben Hanna ‘07: Unlikely connections Part 2

Many people ask how I am able to “pull off” the life that I live. How did I get so lucky? I didn’t. Granted, I met some key people at important times, but not all of it was luck. It has been my mission for quite some time to meet at least one new person a day, and to send one person a month off on an adventure they didn’t see coming.

One person a day is a lofty goal. Think about how many new people you see every day on your way to work, in line at the grocery store, in your apartment building. It is easy to say hello with a little nod of the head and pass by, but this is not a meeting. There has been no exchange of trust.

My job at CouchSurfing.com is to streamline the user interface, take out all of the problems that slow people down in order to make it easier for them to connect with each other in person and online. By discovering the patterns that emerge in the way people use websites, I am able to map out patterns in the way people process information, make decisions, and form opinions. Given one set of options, people will react in a predictable way. Given another choice they will react in a different, but equally predictable manner.

Given the choice to interact with strangers or pass them by, most people choose to pass by and keep their lives and opinions private. Reaching out to someone and starting a conversation when they are not expecting it is a rewarding experience. You never know what you are going to learn.

Local people in Thailand clean and cook a goat over a barrel fire

Local people in Thailand clean and cook a goat over a barrel fire

I got where I am by simply talking to everyone I could for almost a year. Many different opportunities were presented to me because of it – sailing around the world, tour guiding in Australia, starting a cocoa bean farm in Honduras, all because I showed interest in what other people were passionate about. I didn’t follow up on all of them, but I did get to do some incredible things.

One of the CouchSurfing’s goals is to facilitate cultural understanding. We have many methods of doing this, but our research focuses on understanding why people are adverse to experiencing different cultural situations, and what steps can be taken to guide an individual towards a cultural revelation – an “Aha!” moment, where they noticeably become more aware and open to differences in the people around them.

Right now a university in Israel is using anonymous sets of our data to map out user interactions and distinguish critical turning points in travel, familiarity and comfort levels among people of radically different backgrounds and beliefs.

What needs to happen for an upper middle class Elon student to understand, identify and connect with a Buddhist day laborer in Nepal? What can bring the son of a sheik in Saudi Arabia together with a computer programmer from Columbia? It seems that a shared meal, the desire to communicate, and a common roof go a long way towards bridging many of the gaps that seem at first to be insurmountable.

The CouchSurfing Crew on a glacier at the base of Mt. Denali in Alaska

The CouchSurfing Crew on a glacier at the base of Mt. Denali in Alaska

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