Ankit Shah is on a mission to start the country’s biggest tea party. However, instead of competing with the likes of Palin and Bachmann, he is taking on our relationship with one of our closest companions — our smartphones.

For the past few months, Shah has been gathering groups of strangers in the Bay Area to have conversations over tea. The project, aptly named Tea With Strangers, is an opportunity for people to engage with each other and without their devices. According to Shah, “Smartphones move faster than humanity is able to catch up with.” He’s trying to pull in the reins.

As we sat together in the corner of a SOMA café, where Shah was clearly a regular, our pot of Numi Mint started to cool. “So why tea?” I asked. His face seemed eternally backlit with excitement. “Because it doesn’t have a societal connotation like drinks, or coffee, or lunch. Tea Time is not about networking. There are no ulterior motives, besides the desire for good conversation,” he explained. 

Our conversation, much like a typical Tea Time, meandered in and out of focus. I heard anecdotes about Shah's siblings and favorite meals to cook. Between stories of my first kiss and imminent travel aspirations, I learned of the project’s origin.

Through word of mouth alone, the project has grown exponentially. In just about a year, Shah has already had tea with nearly 600 strangers. 

The idea for TWS sprouted in March 2013 during Shah’s last few months of college. “I kept meeting people my senior year that I wish I had met freshmen year. I thought there's gotta be a way to bring people together that wouldn't have otherwise crossed paths,” he said. For the rest of the semester, Shah spent three hours every weeknight at the same Philadelphia café, discussing topics from Harry Potter to horoscopes with over 200 strangers on Penn’s campus.

Then, upon moving to the Bay Area, Shah scaled back his participation in Tea Time in favor of building an institution that can sustain itself. He created a platform and invited others to host in hopes that the project would live far beyond him. Now, on any given night of the week, a designated host and three to five strangers (who are often diverse in age, ethnicity, and perspective) share a table to have a casual conversation with no prescribed topic.

“The whole point of ‘strangers’ is that if everyone has agreed to sit together with no preconceived notions, the conversation becomes much more open minded,” says Shah. It seems a city that is already home to cuddle therapists and Tinder for dogs was a perfect place for Shah to bring his social experiment to the masses. Through word of mouth alone, the project has grown exponentially. In just about a year, Shah has already had tea with nearly 600 strangers. It seems in an age where we avoid MUNI eye contact like the plague, and walk down the street with little white buds in our ears, TWS is certainly a fresh approach to public interactions.

“Today, the easiest way to connect to each other is on social media. By commenting or liking things to affirm your identity,” says Shah.  He believes that TWS, together with projects like Humans of New York, Souls of San Francisco, and Soul Pancake, are a type of humanity practice. “Instead of focusing on differentiators like career, status, or accomplishments, we should celebrate that we all are in the same position of being human.”

Sign up for tea with Shah and other strangers here.

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