In a modern digital world, our heads are always down, and we prefer to hear the familiar voices we already know. We rarely take time to make real connections offline.
We put our guards up by default — eyes glued to our smartphones, just waiting to move on to the next moment. Sound familiar?
Today, technology makes it easier than ever to avoid connecting with strangers. We hide behind screens.
Many of us remain in self-imposed isolation. We have convinced ourselves that reaching out to someone we don’t know would make us extremely uncomfortable.
Thinking strangers aren’t interested in talking, or won’t like you, are the very things that will keep you from making contact.
But here is an interesting finding: you are happier when you talk to total strangers, even though you probably think you will hate it — according to an accumulating body of research.
As uncomfortable as they may be, interactions with strangers can expose you to new perspectives that could add meaningful experiences to your life. “Talking to people who are different from us can be radically transformative. It’s the antidote to fear,” writes Kio Stark in her book “When Strangers Meet.”
Done right, encounters between strangers create “beautiful and surprising interruptions in the expected narrative of your daily life … You find questions whose answers you thought you knew,” she says.
Humans by nature have social brains, social hormones, and social cognition, and connecting with others increases happiness, but we routinely ignore each other. We choose solitude as a more positive experience than interacting with people we don’t know.
When asked by researchers to imagine talking to strangers on the train or bus, many people were horrified; when asked to actually do it, they reported enjoying the journey more.
If you are worse at public small talk, you probably won’t be convinced by all the research that proves you will benefit from interacting with complete strangers. But talking to strangers creates genuine emotional connections.
Nobody appreciates unwanted attention, so how do you make this a positive experience? You will be surprised by the response if you make the attempt with good intentions.
“…simply reaching out to a fellow human being to say hello may be better received than people realise. Few start a conversation with a stranger, but most seem happy to talk if you reach out with good intentions,” writes behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder.
The brief connections on a train during your commute to work and back home or at a social event may not totally change your life or turn a life of misery into bliss, but they can change your focus from unpleasant moments in the morning or the end of your work day into something more enjoyable.
When you are stuck on a train or bus for at least an hour a day, time seems to move pretty slowly. Talking with a stranger during a commute can improve your day.
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology shows that people tend to enjoy themselves during their commute a lot more when they chat with strangers.
What if you are an introvert?
People who feel more energized by time alone underestimate the positive consequences of interacting with strangers. Your personality may shape your expectations.
“Our expectations can become self-fulfilling. If you think that talking to a stranger is likely to be unpleasant, you’ll never try and so never discover that your expectations might be wrong,” Epley and Schroeder argue.
Even though starting a conversation with someone you don’t know may be easier for extroverts, many experiments indicate both extroverts and introverts are happier when they are asked to behave in an extroverted manner.
Of course, it’s easiest to be quiet and not say anything when you sit beside a stranger for a long commute, especially when you have a lot on your smartphone to pass the time, but a little small talk goes a long way for introverts and extroverts alike.
When we choose to spend moments in the coffee shop, on our commutes, the grocery store, or on the street just waiting for something more important to happen, we are giving up opportunities for different perspectives, realities, and mindsets that could help us in life.
Think about all the interactions you’ve had recently that left you feeling inspired. You could open yourself up for more if you took time to make another connection outside your comfort zone.
Choose to acknowledge someone else with your attention the next time you deem it fit to start a conversation with a stranger.