Have you ever wanted to talk to a stranger but worried you’d be bothering them? It’s tempting to think that others will see our personal overtures as annoyances. But this is (mostly) a misapprehension. Most people underestimate how much their conversation partners enjoy talking to them, a bias psychologists have called the liking gap. It comes up at work, at school, and among ordinary strangers.
You might expect that the liking gap would be especially difficult to close in a setting like a stadium concert, where conversations with strangers are typically brief, if they happen at all. But as millions of people found out over the summer, the liking gap has been largely obliterated among fans attending Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. Swifties are coming away from shows feeling connected and fulfilled — as if what they’ve experienced was somehow more than just a concert. They like each other, and they know the feeling is mutual. Somehow, every night of the Eras Tour really is the perfect night to fall in love with a stranger.
How have Swifties managed to make such deeply meaningful connections with fellow fans they’ll likely never see again? They’ve created an institutional answer to the problem posed by the liking gap. To do it, they’ve repurposed a timeless token of platonic love: the friendship bracelet. By mid-summer, it was impossible to pass through (or around) an Eras Tour stadium without being offered one. Equal parts bold and inclusive, Swifties insist on leaving no one out. Fans, their parents, concessions workers, law enforcement, celebrities — all have friendship bracelets by the time they leave.
Ever students of the lyrics, Swifties have a textual basis for their practice. “So make the friendship bracelets,’’ Taylor sings on the fifth track of her 2022 album, “Midnights.’’ “You’re On Your Own, Kid’’ is a song about loneliness that blooms in time into gritty self-reliance. Having been on her own as a kid equipped Swift’s narrator to beat the odds when she’s on her own as an adult. “You can face this,’’ she sings in the final lines. The song’s title becomes a source of reassurance, not despair. “You’re on your own, kid / You always have been.’’
But no one is on their own at a Taylor Swift concert. Not even someone who reluctantly attends solo, like the young woman one of us (Lindsay) met at a show in Cincinnati. Here’s Lindsay:
I spent the entire concert in Cincinnati gleefully trading friendship bracelets, but it was the last trade of the night that meant the most to me. “Can I walk with you?’’ a nervous-looking young Swiftie asked after the show. A couple of drunk-looking guys had been ogling her. “Come trade bracelets with us,’’ my friend and I said.
She told us she’d been afraid to attend the concert alone, but she could only get one ticket. “You’re not alone,’’ we said. “You’re with Swifties!’’ We chatted for about 15 minutes, and, right before her ride arrived, we traded bracelets. In doing so, we let each other know that our brief time together had been meaningful.
Friendship bracelets also help a stranger feel seen. They can be a reminder of the kismet all around us. Ryan, the other of us, relays this story:
When my sister Breanne and I arrived in the security line to see Taylor in Minneapolis, the woman in front us turned around to offer us bracelets. “You know,’’ she said, “I told myself that I just had to have the courage to ask, or else I’d never do it.’’
A few minutes later, we noticed our new bracelet’s inscription: “your contrarian [expletive]’’ — a lyric from the “Evermore’’ album’s song “Gold Rush.’’ But not just any lyric. Years before, Breanne had told me that the one line from all of Taylor Swift she most associated with me was “At dinner parties I call you out on your contrarian [expletive].’’ Our new friend might have been clairvoyant.
This ritual of Swiftian friendship is an ingenious way to bridge the liking gap. Swift herself has endorsed the practice, most recently by encouraging fans to continue trading bracelets in movie theaters during the Eras Tour concert film.
Friendship bracelets meet each of the four classic psychological conditions for positive contact experiences with strangers. First, they affirm the equal standing of each participant. Second, they are a collaborative project. Third, goals between participants are shared. And fourth, they are supported by the endorsement of an influential figure (Swift herself).
“Make the friendship bracelets, take the moment and taste it,’’ Swift sings in “You’re On Your Own, Kid.’’ It’s tempting to think that if a relationship won’t last, then it doesn’t matter now. But that isn’t true. Relationships can be transient yet meaningful. And they can continue to be meaningful in retrospect, even when time obscures the details. As Taylor sings in “Seven,’’ about a childhood friend, “And though I can’t recall your face, I still got love for you.’’
With every bracelet exchanged, Swifties are inducting each other into a not-so-secret society where something different is blooming. The act of toiling away over beads and string for months before a concert is not just an investment in fleeting friendships with people you’ll never see again. It’s an act of love. It’s a ritual of inclusion. It’s a way of showing strangers that you like them.
Lindsay Brainard is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her research focuses on creativity in the sciences and arts.
Ryan Davis is an associate professor at Brigham Young University. He writes about the value of autonomy. They are collaborating with a third writer on a volume of philosophical essays about Taylor Swift’s lyrics.