TEDxUCLA 2017: Gravity

Free Hugs: How to be human in a technological world


About Tom

Tom Krieglstein is a speaker and writer on increasing student engagement and fostering student retention. He has worked with schools worldwide through his leadership program, Dance Floor Theory. As the founder of Swift Kick, Tom has dedicated his life to training campus leaders on how to create a culture of engagement where every student feels welcomed, connected and engaged. He also co-authored six student affairs books, including “First Year Student to First Year Success.”


Technology is amazing.

That’s it. That’s all I got. Thank you. Good night!

No no no, no I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding. But seriously, I mean, technology is amazing.

I mean just by show of hands, how many of you, of you in here have ever bought something off of your phone before? Raise your hand. Right, so just about all of us. And that product sometimes will show up in front of us in as little as 10 minutes, or now it’s even being printed in front of us. I mean, technology is amazing.

But with every technological advance, there comes a tradeoff. And I recently had an experience that helped me understand one of the biggest tradeoffs we’re facing right now with the technology we’re using.

It happened to me several months ago. I woke up in the morning and I checked into my flight on my phone and got a mobile boarding pass. And then before I left for the airport, I ordered lunch to be delivered to my apartment. I ate alone. It was amazing. And then I ordered a taxi to take me to the airport, in the back of the taxi plowed through my inbox, and then I got to the airport, I zip through security with this electronic machine, then I got to the gate, I scanned my mobile boarding pass, got onto the flight, sat down in my seat, plugged into my headset, and then I got off the flight, zipped over to the rental car counter, used another kiosk to take me to my rental car, then drove in my rental car to my hotel, checked into my hotel room with another computer, and at the end of the day I sat down on my bed and opened up my journal and started to write this to myself: “WTF. I just spent an entire day traveling halfway across the country of the United States and I didn’t talk to another human being face-to-face.”

I mean, technology is amazing. But with every technological advance there comes a tradeoff. And one of the biggest tradeoffs we’re facing right now with the technology we’re using is that we have to work harder and be more conscious to create the human-to-human moments that used to randomly and naturally happen to us in the past.

But why? I mean, why do these human-to-human moments matter? Well there’s a lot of research that backs up that it’s in our DNA. We’re biologically wired to be connected to each other. And some of the research backs us up: a leading indicator of one’s own happiness is the number of relationships, deep connected relationships they have in their life. Or another example is neighborhoods see a reduction in crime when the neighbors have stronger connection to each other. Or colleges see an increase in retention rate when the students are more socially connected to each other. I mean our bodies are so biologically wired to be connected to each other that our health literally depends on it.

And our team did a simulation of that exact same trip as if it had happened in the 1970s, and what we discovered is that I would have had to interact with at least 20 different people throughout the day. Twenty people who would have challenged my worldview, or 20 people who have seen the world in a different way than me, or 20 people who might have just said I have something in my teeth, you know? Like, it doesn’t matter. But that idea is that we’re so biologically wired to be connected to each other.

And even though there’s this massive amount of research that backs up the value of these social connections, I find myself having to work harder and be more conscious than ever before in my life, even though there’s amazing technology that’s supposed to help alleviate this social friction. But I find myself having to work harder and be more conscious to create these human-to-human moments.

And so for the past 13 years, our team has been traveling all over the world training leaders at colleges, corporations, and nonprofits on how to create a culture of connection where everyone feels welcome, connected, and engaged within that community so that they can understand that, despite all the amazing technology around us, what’s going to matter most in this situation in your family, your friends, your community, or your work are the strength of the relationships between the members.

And while we were doing these trainings, we were trying to find an activity, something that would help people to understand and feel what it was like in the moment to have a social connection. And at the exact same time, there was this guy down in Australia by the name of Juan Mann and he held up this sign, and on the sign it had two words and it said, “Free Hugs.”

And I said, “That’s it! Free hugs!”

It’s such a simple idea because at minimum, someone will see the sign and they’ll look at it and smile. But at best, someone will go in for the hug and it will release the oxytocin in the body, it’ll make them feel what a positive social connection can do to someone.

Since then, we’ve introduced Free Hugs to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world and we’ve launched countless number of Free Hug campaigns within communities, all around this idea to help people to understand that in this hyper-advanced technological world, what’s going to matter most are the strength of the relationships between each of us, now more than ever.


And a great example of this is one training I was at was at the U.S. military base. And I was in front of 150 uni — sorry, I almost said “armed soldiers” and they’re like, “Talk, Tom,” y’know? No, uniformed soldiers. And I did the Free Hugs Campaign there and I passed out free hugs and they all hugged in the room and I said, “Great. Now let’s go to the base and do it out there!” And they’re all like, “Yeee — nooo. Free hugs in here? Cool. Free hugs out there? Not cool.

But finally they agreed, and I pep-rallied them and they agreed, and so I had two soldiers on either side of me. And the first place we went was to the cafeteria and there’s this lady behind the counter, a cafeteria lady with a bunch of dirty dishes in her hand, and she sees us with our Free Hug sign. So she looks at it and goes, “Twenty-five years on this base and I’ve never seen that before.” And we said, “Oh well do you want a free hug?” And she goes “Oh no no no, I’m too busy for free hugs.” Too busy? (laughs)

Granted, she had dirty dishes in her hand, so she was busy at that moment. So we patiently waited around, we hugged other people nearby, and she went into the back, dropped the dishes off, and then she came back out and she saw us still standing there with the Free Hug sign. And she looked at us and only like a lunch lady could, she put her arms all the way out to the side like this and said, “Come here.” And hugged all five of us at the exact same time.

But what was precious about it is, as she backed up away from us, she had a tear coming down her face. And I thought about it. Wow. Twenty-five years on that base in that community and no one reached out to her the way we did in this one activity. And we had access to all the technology in the world, but what mattered most in that moment right there was a human-to-human connection.

And that got me thinking about all our lives and how we choose to interact with our families, our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, or even our clients and our customers. Because in any situation, we forget this fact that in this technological world we’re in — and technology is amazing, it’s changed our lives in so many positive ways — but yet somewhere along the way, we forgot that we’re all part of the same team, Team Human.

And to be part of Team Human means that at any given moment, we take off this technical hat and we put on the human hat. Because when we take the technical hat off and we put on the human hat, we’ll connect with someone on a human-to-human level. We call this the two hat theory.

And it’s amazing, we forget how easy the technical side can be when we forget about the human side, and how difficult the technical side can be when we forget and don’t have training on the human side. Because in any situation there’s an exchange, and on the other side of that exchange is another human being, a human being that has the same mixture of hopes, fears, dreams, anxiety, frustrations just like you and I.

In fact a friend of mine jokingly says that humans are roughly about 60 percent water. So we’re basically just walking cucumbers with anxiety. So… some of you are just getting that joke now, it’s okay, it’ll get to you. Or you’re doing the visual, it’s all right.

So I want to introduce you to a student I met at a conference. His name is Ryan. Could everyone say, “Hey Ryan?” Nice. So Ryan has this larger-than-life personality. He wants to be friends with everyone. The one unique aspect about Ryan is that he has Asperger’s, and anyone who knows someone with Asperger’s knows that it can be socially isolating.

But Ryan wanted to be friends with everyone, so in junior high he walks into high school and he’s like, “Hey my name’s Ryan, hey my name’s Ryan, hey my name’s Ryan,” but no one wants to be his friend.

And in fact it gets worse, because besides not being his friend, they started to bully him. And he got the worst of the worst kind of bullying because they would shove his books down, they’d throw him in the locker and lock the locker, and they’d call them offensive names. He had a horrible junior high experience.

But he graduated and he went on to high school, and he said, “High school. This is a chance to have a new experience.” So he walks in on his first day of high school and he starts walking around, “Hey my name’s Ryan, hey my name’s Ryan, hey my name’s Ryan,” and he’s trying to make the friends again that he’s wanted to make his whole life, but again no one wants to be his friend.

And halfway through the day, he’s sitting by himself at lunch and this is what he told me. “All my attempts to make friends failed and I was called several offensive names in the process. By lunchtime I was feeling miserable, as if the world didn’t give a damn about me.” I thought man, there’s another student a fellow human being that’s calling out for a social connection. And the danger of moments and social isolation like that is it can lead to anxiety, depression, or worse, suicide.

Lucky for us, that didn’t happen to Ryan, because there were two student leaders at that school who understood the concept of the two-hat theory, in the human side and the technical side, and they saw Ryan sitting by himself. So they went over to Ryan and they said, “Hey Ryan, my name’s Kevin. Hey, my name’s Samir. What’s your name?” And they got him to laugh, they got him to smile, they got him up, they brought him over to their friend group, and Ryan was smiling and he was making the friends he finally wanted to make his whole life.

And at that moment, here’s what Ryan said: “At the end of the day, I felt as though their selfless moment of kindness started me down a better path in my life.” I thought, “That’s it!” Selfless moments of kindness where we connect with each other on a human-to-human level.

And the best part about Ryan’s story is what he told me at the end. He said, “Kevin and Samir absolutely gonna be the best man at my wedding.” Can we give that all around applause really quickly?

So we have a phrase that we use called “Humans Need Humans.” And my ask to the TED community is I want to challenge all of us for the next week to have one human-to-human moment per day. And then let’s leverage technology for good by using the #teamhuman hashtag to share that moment with others so that we can start a trend and inspire other people to have moments as well. Because in that spirit, we’re going to find out that we want to connect with each other and that those are some of the best moments that have happened for us.

But I said you know, it shouldn’t wait ’til we go out there to have our first human-to-human moment. I said, “We should make it happen right now, right here, in this room.” So I was actually thinking about this idea, I asked the leadership team ahead of time. I said, “Hey, would it be possible if we printed off a whole bunch of Free Hug signs and pass it out to everyone in this room and we can launch our own Free Hugs Campaign right here?”

But apparently something happened at another TED event and you’re actually not allowed to hug anymore, did you know that? No no, I’m just kidding!

If you look under your seat, every single person in this room has a copy of our original Free Hug sign. I feel like the Oprah of free hugs right now: you get a hug and you get a hug and you get a hug and you up there!

I hope that you use this sign as a reminder that you and everyone else in here are all part of the same team, Team Human, and that you take that extra moment to have a selfless moment of kindness, to connect with someone else. Because it’s not only going to be good for you, it could be life-changing for them. Thank you so much, I appreciate the time.