Three weeks into 2021, I was mindlessly scrolling through TikTok, attempting to numb the heartbreak I’d been tending to since the new year. I abruptly stopped on one featuring an LED sign with the words “I Miss The Idea I Had Of You.” In my session of internet-induced escapism, I was forced to face my own reality, thanks to the TikTok account of We’re Not Really Strangers.
Their Instagram commands a similar level of vulnerability, donning posts of “in the wild” photos featuring mantras of love, loss, and personal growth. Their Twitter is filled with affirmations that gracelessly push us through emotional tumult, threads on the difficult realities of love, and even photos of strangers through windows as a form of virtual company. Although the accounts were created nearly two years before the pandemic, their posts feel like something all of us need right now: reminders that even during solitary reflection, we’re not alone.
Before the rise of their widely popular social media posts, We’re Not Really Strangers began as a card game, composed of three different levels meant to foster deeper human connection. Perception encourages players to get to know each other through questions like “Do you think I fall in love easily?”; Connection is the meat of the game, wherein players tend to get vulnerable with questions like “How are you, really?”; the game closes with Reflection, allowing players to ruminate on the connections they’ve made with questions like “What question was the hardest for you to answer?” The aftermath usually consists of instant and effortless connections, as Carlos, a 27-year-old player of the game, noted: “I’m not sure I’ve ever made a close friend this fast.” These intimate affiliations, whether platonic or romantic, are vital interactions that most of us have been lacking since last March, making the game and accompanying social accounts exponentially grow.
I discovered WNRS one month into quarantine, virtually getting to know while concurrently falling in love with my girlfriend at the time, by playing their free, downloadable quarantine edition with her over FaceTime. These 20 questions were my first glimpse into the world of WNRS, and I discovered how just a few questions can break down your emotional walls to let someone else in—something I’m still grateful for today.
I played the full card game for the first time just last week with two close friends, and we spent the next three hours virtually unpacking our friendship and finding solace in our shared experiences. I answered “home” to the tender question of “What does love feel like?”, and my friends couldn’t agree more. I felt my friends virtually hugging me, although thousands of miles away, as they encouraged me to dig deeper into my feelings and I encouraged them to do the same.
Others flock to the game seeking similar connections, and no matter what kind of relationship results, the game typically does what it claims, transitioning strangers to non-strangers. For Mariah, a 26-year-old who played WNRS on her first two dates with her now-partner, the game “set [them] up for having strong communication and a deeper connection with each other from the get-go.” Kelly, a 26-year-old who has also played with romantic interests, said WNRS made the process of opening up to a stranger “more of a fun and creative process rather than being afraid to show [her] true self to someone, or even having to work through the beginning of a mundane talking stage.”
While the game successfully builds relationships between people, even during a time when forming these connections seems impossible, WNRS has revealed something even more critical—our most prioritized relationship should be the relationship we have with ourselves.
Forming significant connections with others carries a necessary first step: confronting your own capacity for emotional intimacy. Kristy, a 23-year-old recent graduate and longtime lover of WNRS, has used the game to get to know herself each time she plays. “I was constantly able to observe where I held back and when I didn’t want to,” she said. “It pushed me to work against those confines I built for myself. Rather than seeing myself as a bunch of academic or psychological terms, I was able to just be present.” The ambitious questions WNRS asks can challenge your own perceptions and gradually build self-awareness in a non-therapized setting, making self-reflection a bit less terrifying.
This introspection can involve “unpack[ing] old scars,” as Mariah noted, but they don’t always have to be tucked into your dark past. Sometimes, the brand can catch you at the perfect moment and help you process your present. Nine months after my virtual WNRS date with my ex, I rediscovered the brand at a time when I needed it most, ironically helping me get through my breakup through their TikTok feed. I was reminded of the complexity of breakups, that letting go doesn’t mean forgetting, and that I can continue to grow on my own. I cried when I voted “yes” to an Instagram poll asking if I was missing anyone; I felt validated when I was reminded that “slow healing is something to celebrate too.” While I’ve been healing by journaling, going to therapy, and listening to too much Phoebe Bridgers, seeing WNRS’s cathartic posts on a daily basis also made it difficult to suppress my emotions. Instead, I sat with them, allowing them to transform into new realizations and vessels for self-growth.
Their “quick and easily consumable content,” as Amanda, 23-year-old WNRS fan, calls it, makes reflection less intimidating—through candid videos of strangers featuring tender questions and photos of buildings displaying self-love mantras. They’re short enough for anyone to access, but poignant enough to leave an impact on anyone who reads them.
Koreen Odiney, the game’s founder, strived for this sense of relatability when making the accounts. She said in a Forbes interview, “If you go on one of WNRS’s posts, know that it’s going to be about something I’m currently going through. And hopefully you will feel less alone, because I’m being honest about it or it’s a question that you can reflect on with yourself.”
Odiney’s messaging is compelling enough to pull viewers in, helping those who need to ask themselves challenging questions or be reminded of their progress. When you’ve been dealing with a heavy load of self-deprecation, you’ll stumble upon a TikTok explaining how to reframe it into positive affirmations. When you’re feeling unlovable, you’ll see words of wisdom like “Think of all the people you haven’t met yet that you’re going to love and that are going to love you back.”
Amanda noted that scrolling through WNRS posts has helped her confront, rather than avoid, her heavy emotions and recent breakup. Kelly has also learned to accept her feelings, noting, “Seeing these messages throughout the day reminded me that it’s okay to feel your feelings thoroughly instead of just numbing them with other vices.” To WNRS’s followers, the accounts act as a temporary replacement for a best friend or therapist—people that many of us physically lack right now—to help us embrace difficult emotions.
WNRS also used to send texts to folks who signed up for them, making the brand feel like a friend who’s got your back. Kelly reminisces on a time WNRS sent her a late-night text saying, “R u up? What do you need to get off your chest tonight?” soon after being betrayed by a friend. Instead of spending a sleepless night spiraling, she was able to put her feelings into words by sending a text back that no one would read, similar to a journal prompt entry. While they rarely send texts anymore, WNRS still asks difficult questions, encouraging us to embrace vulnerability and look within.
To incite further conversations with ourselves, WNRS also released several expansion packs, like their self-love edition. I recently purchased their breakup edition, wanting to go even further with my healing process through questions like “What has helped you heal from a heartbreak in the past?” While I haven’t had the chance to dive into these questions just yet, I’m certain that they’ll teach me one thing: while everyone’s love and loss look different, we still, at one point or another, all go through these experiences.
We’re Not Really Strangers does hold truth in its name—not because of the connections that are formed, but because these questions and social media posts bring out what all humans strive for: to feel understood by other people. This sentiment fills the void of loneliness that continues to deepen as we realize it’s been almost a year of not being able to hug our friends or go through the vital experiences that ultimately make us grow. WNRS proves that “we are more alike than we would like to think we are sometimes,” as Kelly put it. We can build connections with others through a cleverly structured card game, but we also can build intimacy with ourselves by learning how we process our deepest emotions. We can use these cards as solo journal prompts, or we can feel affirmed by friends or lovers after asking during the game “What do I need to hear right now?” and hearing another player remind us “This too shall pass.”
I continue to feel held by these affirmations the more I interact with WNRS, unraveling others while simultaneously unraveling myself. I know that there is still more to come, that digging deeper through heartache and depression could become an infinite process that hopefully results in accepting myself for who I am, no matter how heavy my feelings might be. We’re Not Really Strangers reminds us of that—that even through sadness, anxiety, and emotions we can’t exactly name, we are all trying our best.
By Natalie Geisel