When was the last time you made conversation with a stranger? Does it seem awkward and not worth the bother? Would you be surprised to hear that routinely talking with strangers can make you happier?
And yet, the research is clear on this – whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, striking up brief conversations with strangers is more enjoyable than you think and good for your well-being.
For example, some participants in one study were asked to have a ‘genuine interaction’ with their cashier at a cafe – that is, ‘smile, make eye contact to establish a connection, and have a brief conversation’.
Other participants in the experiment were asked to be as efficient as possible in their dealings with the cashier, to have their money ready and ‘avoid unnecessary conversation’.
Afterwards, the people who had a social interaction with the barista reported more positive mood and a greater sense of belonging than those who didn’t engage in conversation.
In another study, one group of people were asked to speak to strangers during their morning train or bus commute to work; other groups were asked to keep to themselves or to commute as normal. Afterwards, the people who connected with strangers felt better then those who didn’t. They enjoyed the conversations and formed positive impressions of the people they talked to, with the average conversation lasting over 14 minutes.
Various other studies have reported similar results, which raises the question: if we feel happier after talking with strangers, why don’t we do it more often?
Sometimes, we may be too busy and distracted to do so. As you queue for your morning coffee, you might be thinking of all the jobs you need to do today, so much so that the possibility of making a casual social connection doesn’t even dawn on you.
Smartphones are another factor. Scrolling through Facebook, reading the latest headlines, listening to a podcast – people are increasingly absorbed in their mobile phones these days.
However, there are other more important factors.
Firstly, people fear strangers won’t want to talk to them. For example, participants in the aforementioned study estimated only about 40% of their fellow train passengers would be willing to talk to them. In reality, every participant who actually tried to talk to a stranger found the person sitting next to them was happy to chat.
Now, sceptical readers might think: yes, but maybe they were only being polite, maybe they were privately thinking, "I wish this person would stop yapping and leave me read my newspaper”.
However, that’s not usually the case; the researchers found that people who were talked to reported equally positive experiences as those instructed to talk.
Secondly, it’s not just that we think others won’t enjoy talking with us; we also think we won’t like it. Prior to talking with strangers on their commute, people were asked about their expectations regarding the encounter. They predicted that connecting with a stranger would be an unpleasant and unproductive use of time.
‘People seem to ignore strangers because they mistakenly think that forming a connection with them would be systematically unpleasant’, the study noted, ‘whereas isolation would be pleasurable.’
These predictions turned out to be very wrong. Little wonder the study is titled Mistakenly Seeking Solitude.
That said, these fears are understandable. After all, striking up conversation with strangers can seem awkward, even daunting. Indeed, even after people reported surprisingly positive experiences, they tended to worry the next conversation would go badly.
What this shows is that while having the odd conversation with a stranger is all very well, it’s a better idea to get into the habit of doing it regularly. Over time, you get more confident and less fearful of rejection.
The word “habit” is key, because you don’t need to be a gifted conversationalist to talk with strangers. Eventually, talking with people you don’t know becomes something you do out of habit, free of the old fears.
Treating strangers as if they might become acquaintances is a good idea. ‘Minimal social interactions’, as one study put it, can be a ‘hidden source of belonging and happiness’ (*see below).
Mistakenly seeking solitude, to use that phrase again, is, well, a mistake.
*This sentence could be misread. By 'minimal social interactions', the researchers meant that minor, fleeting social interactions are good for us, not that you should keep social interactions to a minimum!
(First published in Southern Star on 11/11/2021)