In a world where many social interactions take place digitally, striking up conversations with strangers might seem like a lost art. But studies show that talking to someone you’ve never met before, even in passing, can make you wiser and happier. And engaging in conversation with unfamiliar faces can have profound benefits for your emotional wellbeing and cognitive prowess.
A suspicious society
The saying stranger danger has been around for years and is drilled into kids of all ages. However, could this way of thinking affect interactions in later life?
Some social scientists believe teaching kids that literally everyone in the world they haven’t met is dangerous may be actively harmful. Political scientist Dietlind Stolle, from McGill University in Canada, argues that this messaging may damage a child’s ability to trust other people.
“How many social or economic opportunities do we miss by simply being afraid of strangers?” Mr Stolle asks. Of course, strangers shouldn’t approach children, but there may be some benefits of safely speaking to strangers as adults.
There is usually some apprehension about conversing with strangers. It might lead to discomfort or awkwardness, but research suggests that these encounters actually cultivate empathy and compassion.
Joe Keohane did a lot of research about why we don’t talk to strangers and what happens when we do for his book The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World.
“We miss a lot by being afraid of strangers. Talking to strangers – under the right conditions – is good for us, good for our neighbourhoods, our towns and cities, our nations, and our world. Talking to strangers can teach you things, deepen you, make you a better citizen, a better thinker and a better person. It’s a good way to live. But it’s more than that. In a rapidly changing, infinitely complex, furiously polarised world, it’s a way to survive,” Mr Keohane wrote in an article for the BBC.
Talking to strangers can make you happier
In 2013, psychologists Gillian Sandstrom, at the University of Sussex in the UK and Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia, put it to the test. The study involved 30 adults engaging in friendly conversation and smiling with their barista at a coffee shop in Toronto, while another 30 participants focused solely on efficient transactions.
Ms Sandstrom observed that people tend to hold a pessimistic view of interactions with strangers, but the study’s results suggested otherwise. Those who conversed with the barista while purchasing their coffee reported experiencing a heightened sense of belonging and an improved mood compared to those who refrained from engaging in conversation. The authors encouraged readers to recognise the potential for a quick mood lift by simply interacting with the barista, thereby tapping into this easily accessible source of happiness.
Talking to strangers can make you wiser
According to Professor Danielle Allen of Harvard University, conversing with strangers can lead to greater wisdom, a broader worldview and heightened empathy. While teaching at the University of Chicago, Prof. Allen received repeated warnings from colleagues to avoid the less affluent areas of the city. Despite these warnings, she chose not to distance herself and instead produced some of her most esteemed work in these very neighbourhoods.
Since then, she has dedicated her career to facilitating connections between people and communities that would not typically interact. Prof. Allen emphasises that genuine understanding of the world beyond your immediate surroundings diminishes fear, and she asserts that it is only through conversations with strangers that we can attain such understanding.
“I like humanity as a whole more because I talk to strangers,” Prof. Allen says. “When it comes to talking to strangers the positives vastly outweigh the negatives.”
How to talk to strangers
There are numerous factors that can stop you from talking with others. Undoubtedly, the prevalence of smartphones makes it very easy to avoid direct interactions with people in your immediate surroundings.
You might also be wary about approaching individuals who look untrustworthy to you, even if you’ve never met them before. It’s a natural instinct to want to interact with people who bear similarities to individuals we have previously trusted, rather than with those who resemble untrustworthy figures from our past.
Typically though, those fears are unfounded and people are relieved after a positive interaction. “I think that relief might just be the feeling that we’re sold this message that the world is a scary place,” says Ms Sandstrom. “And then you have a chat with some random person, and it goes well, and it’s like, ‘Maybe the world isn’t so bad after all’.”
Ms Sandstrom gives some advice for talking to someone you don’t know; ask an open question to get them to talk first, and then reply with something you have in common – there’s a reason we default to talking about the weather.
Interacting with strangers, even in passing, can help you build or rebuild social networks, reconnect with your community and shore up trust in the people around you. So if you can, it is worth trying.
How often do you speak with strangers? Have you had more positive than negative interactions? Let us know in the comments section below.