Excuse me, may I take your photograph?

The rhetoric of emotional intelligence, through the views and viewfinder of Brandon Stanton

(This research has been nominated for Stanford’s Lunsford Oral Presentation of Research Award)

At least 10,000 people on the streets of New York City have been asked this question by the same man. Camera forward and hat back, Brandon Stanton joins the metropolitan multitudes each day. Unassuming in appearance as another passerby, he has a knack for sharing strangers’ stories on an international stage. Although he walks the streets alone, 12 million followers travel with him through his photo blog, Humans of New York (HONY).

Every day, Stanton stops people on the streets of the city and asks for their photograph. He follows up with more difficult questions. And, through camera click and conversation, Stanton introduces the world to the people of New York.

Thousands of strangers photographed. 12 million Facebook followers. Yet, HONY is not about the numbers. It is about the individuals.


Two ballerinas with natural stage effects. (Photo by Brandon Stanton)

Through HONY, Stanton introduced the Columbia University janitor who studied after his shifts and, 12 years later, earned his Classics degree from the school. Through HONY, we met the homeless bibliophile, the California gold miner, and the 4-foot Carnegie Hall performer.

By now, Stanton has traveled far beyond the boroughs. This summer, he partnered with the United Nations to take his blog on tour to 11 countries — Iraq, Jordan, Uganda, Ukraine, India, Vietnam and more — in raising awareness of the UN Millennium Development Goals. The HONY goal remained the same: to listen to as many people as possible and to share their stories. Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 10.35.16 AM

Named one of TIME Magazine’s “30 Under 30 World Changers” and a #1 New York Times bestselling author, Stanton has become more than a street photographer.

He has held meaningful conversations from Crown Heights to the Congo. He has quickly engaged with people across the globe. One-by-one, he has built a global community of human connections.

He shows us that we can do the same.

Being like Brandon

“The new gold standard of leadership success is one’s capacity to build and maintain meaningful relationships through human connection.” – Lyle Winslow

In our digitalized era, this most basic, underlying quality becomes essential to any leader: the ability to connect with people and maintain relationships. Our intimate, attached-at-the-hip relationships with our phones and the increasingly fast pace of daily life actually require us to turn backwards in time, to rediscover our sense of humanity.

After an interview with Stanton, journalist Michael Kaplan of American Photo Mag described his “analog humanity in a world gone madly digital.” During the interview, a boy in Gotham walked up to Stanton and asked, “Can I hug you?”

Luckily, we do not need to break up with our phones or other technologies. We simply need to use technology as a medium rather than a barrier for meaningful communication. We see this in Stanton’s ability to emotionally appeal to millions over the internet.

Thus, not only does Stanton connect with people through personal conversations, but he also does so through online activity. We will explore the practice of both. Furthermore, through these connections, Stanton creates a global community and exemplifies the reason for his success — emotional leadership.


It was perhaps another brisk January day for Vidal, a 13-year-old boy from Brownsville, the neighborhood with the highest crime rate in New York City. His black hood shielding him from the cool air, Vidal walked down sidewalks that his sneakers knew well.


“When you live here, you don’t have too many fears. You’ve seen pretty much everything that life can throw at you. When I was nine, I saw a guy get pushed off the roof of that building right there.” – Vidal (Photo by Brandon Stanton)

Somewhere between brick buildings, Vidal met Stanton and the two spoke for a while.

“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?” Stanton asked.

“My principal, Ms. Lopez,” Vidal responded.

“How has she influenced you?”

“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us… One time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

“When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up,” said Ms. Lopez when Stanton visited her a couple days later. “But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

During the conversation, an idea developed: to send the students on visits to Harvard. Lopez wanted to show her young scholars the opportunities for them beyond the crime-ridden town.

Stanton immediately launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise money for the Harvard visits.

The campaign’s initial goal was to raise $100,000; after Stanton shared the link on HONY, this goal was reached within 45 minutes. Within 19 days, $1.4 million dollars would be raised — enough for a decade of visits to Harvard, safe summer programs and a new “Vidal Scholarship Fund.” In less than a month, “Let’s Send Kids to Harvard” became the most successful campaign in the website’s history.


Leadership on its deepest level

One boy, one conversation, would lead to a global campaign that reached donors from 108 countries and all 50 states. Does this massive impact make Stanton a leader?

Absolutely. But not on its own.

The impact would not have been possible without the global community that Stanton already had in place.

Stanton did not build this community through authoritative power. He did not hold up credentials. He did not invest money.

He invested emotion, and in doing so, inspired emotional investments of others. In business terms, he referred to this genuine care as HONY’s “competitive advantage” during a speech to students at University College Dublin.

He explained, “It’s the taking an atmosphere of fear and strangeness and uncomfortableness and turning that into an atmosphere of intimacy where people feel comfortable to disclose in a short amount of time.”

What it comes down to — and what Stanton exemplifies — is emotional intelligence (EI): the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, and the ability to manage relationships.

Emotional intelligence is the fine-tuned, biological satellite into our surroundings. It returns us to the building blocks of human connection, requiring profound insight into one another’s feelings. It can cause us to be leaders on the deepest level.

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The power of emotional intelligence

Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision, or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal: Great leadership works through the emotions. 

– Daniel Goleman, Primal Leadership: Leading with Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman, the father of emotional intelligence, breaks it down into two areas of competence: how we manage ourselves (self-awareness and self-management) and how we manage relationships (social awareness and relationship management). Subcategories include empathy, self-confidence and inspiration. (To study Goleman’s complete list of competencies, see figure below).

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 2.41.53 AMIn his book, Primal Leadership, Goleman explains that he has never actually encountered a leader in his research who exhibits every competency across the board. Rather, the effective leaders tend to have strengths in about a half-dozen competencies. Harvard and Boston University professor David McClelland found that leaders with six or more EI leadership abilities were far more effective than peers without these strengths.

No fixed formula or combination exists, but EI does take practice. This is a good thing: we can teach ourselves to be more emotionally intelligent. Goleman stresses, “EI competencies are not innate talents, but learned abilities.”

The goal of emotional intelligence is not only to be attuned to others’ emotions, but also to drive collective emotions in a positive direction — what Goleman calls creating resonance.


The powerful give-and-take nature of emotional intelligence lies in the brain’s design. Our limbic system, our emotional center, has circuitry that runs from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala. Our limbic system is an “open-loop” system, meaning it depends on external sources; put another way, our emotional stability depends on our interpersonal connections. Ultimately, our moods are highly determined by the people around us.


This explains daily phenomena regarding attuned emotions. For example, when a conversation begins between two people, their bodies operate at different rhythms. After just fifteen minutes, the conversationalists’ physiological profiles look incredibly alike, a process called mirroring. Research in intensive care units has proven that a patient’s blood pressure can be lowered by the comforting presence of another person in the room. When professional sports teams spend days or weeks together, players’ moods will synchronize.

Think of the space between people as emotional soup. Every person contributes his or her emotion to the mix. This occurs in conversations, board rooms, offices, and shop floors. 4725429985_bb6d0ca367_bThe leader, however, adds the strongest seasoning to the soup. People turn towards leaders for emotional cues, in order to gage how to feel or react.


People work best when they feel best. Knowing this, leaders can, and should, take advantage of their position to drive emotions in a positive direction — to create resonance.

A study at the Yale School of Management looked at the diffusion rate of good and bad moods among working groups. The study found that cheerfulness, warmth and other good moods diffused more easily than bad moods like irritability. (We all know that laughter is contagious!) Moreover, these upbeat moods boosted cooperation, fairness and business performance.

Another study observed 62 CEOs and their top management teams. These CEOs represented Fortune 500 companies, accounting and consulting firms, not-for-profit organizations and government agencies. The CEOs and team members were assessed based on how upbeat (energetic, enthusiastic, determined) they were, as well as how much conflict the team experienced. The study found that the more positive these top teams’ overall moods were, the better the company’s business outcomes.

One logarithm actually intends to quantify the company “climate”: for every 1 percent improvement in the service climate, there’s a 2 percent increase in revenue.

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Feelings might still seem too personal or intangible to discuss in a concrete way. Business culture, and cultures in other sectors, even appear to value intellect devoid of emotion. Yet, in Goleman’s words, “our emotions are, in a very real sense, more powerful than our intellect.”

Even without uttering a word, our emotions can affect those of others. Researchers have seen how emotions spread among people, even when contact is nonverbal. When three strangers face each other in silence for a minute or two, the most “emotionally expressive” person transmits his or her mood to the others.

Therefore, how we act can be equally or more powerful than what we say.

The HONY way

Brandon Stanton knows this fact. In his speech at University College Dublin, he shared his early indecision over whether it would be more effective to ask for a person’s “portrait” versus asking for a “photograph.” He said, “After repeated and repeated attempts, I realized it had nothing to do with the words I was saying. It’s all about the energy that I’m giving off.”

Stanton admits openly that he is not the best photographer in the world, nor the best journalist. But after five years of daily conversations with random people, he is perhaps one of the best in the world at talking to strangers and getting to an interesting story. Ten or 15 minutes is all it takes.

“If you talk to me for 15 minutes, chances are we would touch on something you feel very comfortable about or you feel very articulate about,” he said.

Not only can Stanton approach and connect with people face-to-face, he can do so Facebook-to-Facebook. He is able to translate his emotional intelligence onto an online platform. This is the novelty that has allowed him to engage with people across oceans. Every HONY post is now translated into Chinese.

As members of the 21st century, both in-person and online spaces serve as important mediums of communication.


The magic of Humans of New York begins with Stanton’s personal conversations. “Magic” it may seem, considering the sensational popularity of the blog. However, Stanton actually has a self-described “systematic process” in his approach to people on the street, which he demonstrated for his audience in Dublin.

Stanton’s Approach: Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 3.13.18 AM

  1. Slightly crouches. Stanton’s first thought is his body position. He lowers himself in order to make his 6’4” frame less intimidating.
  1. Raises tone of voice. In an effort to try to be as “calm and nonthreatening as possible,” he speaks with a higher voice. This does not take away from his self-confidence, a critical EI competency. As he said, “The worst energy you can give off is nervousness.” This can prompt people to question your motives or, in a leadership context, credibility.
  1. Pops the question. “Excuse me, may I take your photograph?” Polite and genuine. (Of course, he only continues this process if the answer is “yes.”)
  1. Takes the picture. He always takes a full-body picture first, so as not to be invasive.
  1. Sits down to talk. At this point, he often literally kneels or sits down on the ground to have a conversation. This subtle movement puts Stanton and his subject on an equal plane and empathic level.

6. Has a conversation. He begins with broad questions, such as “What was your happiest moment?” or “What are you struggling with right now?” He does not look for a particular answer, just a personal one.

Not surprisingly, his questions often call upon emotions. In a video essay on Mashable, Stanton shared, “What I’m looking for is a story. Always looking for a story. And you’ll find that the stories in people’s lives — the ones that are the most meaningful and impactful and interesting — tend to revolve around a certain emotion, whether that be extreme anger, extreme fear, extreme sadness, extreme happiness.”

Of course, not all of his conversations take an “extreme” turn. They turn naturally.

“After about two minutes, it’s just two people having a natural conversation. It’s not checking questions off the list. It’s just me talking to people,” he said.

Our daily conversations do not necessarily have to touch upon the pivotal moments of each other’s lives. But emotionally intelligent conversations do involve several elements of Stanton’s process: nonthreatening body language and tone of voice, genuine curiosity, active listening and empathy.


Stanton’s work on Humans of New York shows that the same skills can be applied online. Stanton describes HONY’s story as “such a 21st-century story” to an audience at Harvard. The public dialogue afforded by Facebook has made Stanton a modern community builder.Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 3.29.16 AM

American Photo Mag said Stanton’s success “heralds a new era when what matters to the viewer is having a direct connection with the art and his work.”

How does Stanton practice emotional intelligence online?

Indiegogo, the crowdfunding website similar to Kickstarter, answered this question after “Let’s Send Kids to Harvard” broke the record for the most contributors to a single campaign. The website posed the question “Why’d this story catch on?” and explained that Stanton used “powerful images” and “meaningful quotes” to represent a story that “emotionally resonates” with people.

The combination of powerful images alongside meaningful quotes was the impetus for HONY’s success. On the HONY website, Stanton says, “Taken together, these portraits and captions became the subject of a vibrant blog.”

The quote alongside the picture gives us viewers a more holistic sense of the photographed person. We are able to at once see and hear from the person. This combo mimics our face-to-face conversations; thus, the stories “emotionally resonate” with us as they would in person.

The impact of this record-breaking Indiegogo campaign is impressive. Yet, again, such impact would not have been possible without the robust global community that Stanton had already built. This community is made up of both recent fans and religious followers of HONY who come across the emotionally resonant stories shared on a daily basis.

The online resonance of HONY is intentional. Stanton said that he strives to control the online climate “by setting a positive culture [and] encouraging people to be supportive.”

To set this positive culture, Stanton comments on his own pictures at times. He continues the dialogue, only this time with a dozen million people. You can see his comment on the picture below. Carey Eugene also commented on the picture with a remark as a “fellow black female electrical engineer,” relating herself to the woman pictured. Frequent “I am the same” stories like this speak to the atmosphere of empathy.

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(Photo by Brandon Stanton)

In another instance, a woman named Tori Costello had told Stanton about her father’s brain surgery. Later, Tori thanks the HONY community for their kind words and gives an update about her father’s tumor-free condition. Her comment implies her sense of connectedness to the virtual community. Another woman, Rebecca, comments below that she is “continually amazed at how emotionally invested [she becomes] into the lives of strangers, from just a photograph and a few lines about their lives.”

The remarkable empathy, inspiration and care shared through HONY offer a paragon of online emotional intelligence. Now, when used as a medium for meaningful discussion, access to internet connection means access to vast personal connection.

Heart & head

As iPhone apps regularly enter dinner party discourse and iterations of Silicon Valley spring up across the world, we have new choices to make. The choice to strengthen our emotional intelligence arises in nearly every interaction with other people, from supermarket chit-chat to critical decisions in the workplace.

The significance of emotional intelligence is evident. EI can lead to greater financial success in business, more positive company cultures, more compatible teams and more meaningful relationships in any realm of life. When you invest your time and positive energy into others’ lives, they notice, appreciate and, likely, reciprocate.


(Photo courtesy of TheJournal.ie)

Implementing emotional intelligence is still a choice. As Goleman said, EI is not innate; it is learned and strengthened through practice. As becomes apparent in a short survey of job descriptions, our society has come to emphasize very different values: computational abilities, data analytics and other “hard” skills.

These are important, but our potential as leaders is amplified when we consider giving more of ourselves to those around us.

“Without a healthy ‘dose of heart,'” said Goleman, “a supposed ‘leader’ may manage — but he does not lead.”

Years ago, Albert Einstein probably would have agreed. He said, “We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead, it can only serve.”

Our intellect indeed has powerful muscles, but we must take the conscious effort to exercise our hearts alongside our heads. ♦


Meet the author

jenna2Jenna Shapiro is a writer and photographer at Stanford University who likes getting to know people and their stories. Having served as a staff member on her high school and college newspapers, she estimates she has interviewed over 300 people, including Vogue Italia Editor-in-Chief Franca Sozzani, PR maven Kelly Cutrone and supermodel Bethann Hardison. Above all, she enjoys talking to her peers around her. Jenna recently became a collaborator of Stanford Humans, an iteration of Humans of New York.